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13 Jun 2024 7:16
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  •   Home > News > International

    Why French President Emmanuel Macron's visit to New Caledonia is unlikely to bring peace

    After more than a week of deadly rioting that has left six people dead, Emmanuel Macron meets with local leaders to find a way forward — but experts say the visit is unlikely to address the root causes of the unrest.

    French President Emmanuel Macron has arrived in New Caledonia after more than a week of deadly civil unrest and violence.

    Mr Macron said he hoped peace and security would return to New Caledonia "as quickly as possible".

    "My goal … is to be at the side of the population so that, as quickly as possible, we have the return of peace, calm, security," he said.

    Mr Macron sat down with a host of senior political and business leaders at the French High Commission in Noumea, promising "open" and "frank" discussions on the territory's political future.

    He said he wanted to hold discussions to "regain calm" and cool political tensions, but also warned that any path forward would have to respect the result of three recent referenda which saw voters opt to retain links with France.

    "It can't be about turning back the clock [or] in not respecting the popular expression that has already been played out," he said.

    The president also did not say whether he'd be willing to bow to a key demand of pro-independence leaders and abandon a move to expand voter rolls in New Caledonia.

    With the island under a state of emergency, Mr Macron said the additional security in the territory totalling 3,000 personnel would remain, even during the Paris Olympics if required.

    "I personally believe that the state of emergency should not be extended," he said, adding it would be lifted only when protesters remove the roadblocks.

    Experts say Mr Macron's visit is unlikely to address the root causes of the turmoil — both political and economic.

    The crisis — which has left six dead and hundreds injured — was sparked by plans to give voting rights to tens of thousands of non-Indigenous residents.

    It was seen as an attempt to torpedo the independence movement led by the territory's Indigenous Kanaks, who make up more than 40 per cent of the population.

    Pro-independence groups say they want the electoral reform scrapped and have called for an independent arbiter to get involved in negotiations between them and anti-independence groups.

    The president of the New Caledonian Senate, pro-independence politician Roch Wamytan, was not excited about the prospect of Mr Macron visiting New Caledonia.

    "Frankly, we don't expect anything," Mr Wamytan said.

    He said scrapping the voting reform was key to bringing all parties back to the table, "so that we can continue the discussion with the state, but also with the non-independence branch, in order to see an agreement be reached in the coming months".

    Jimmy Naouna, a spokesperson from the pro-independence Front de Libération  Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS), said it was a "political situation so there needs to be a political solution".

    He also called for France to withdraw their troops.

    "You can't keep sending in troops just to quell the protests, because that is just going to lead to more protests," he told the ABC's Pacific Beat.

    "The political solution to this is for the negotiations to start again, but for that, there needs to be a secure and safe environment and peaceful environment, and for that, this electoral reform bill needs to be suspended or withdrawn."

    Mr Naouna said that talks preceding the violence were derailed by the French government taking the side of the anti-independence groups.

    "That's why we're calling for this high-level independent mission of dialogue to come to New Caledonia, because we've lost trust in Macron," he said.

    In a further statement ahead of Mr Macron's arrival, the FLNKS reiterated its call for the continued decolonisation of the territory and independence.

    "In any case, the FLNKS expects from this visit that the president of the republic will make an announcement falling under his sole responsibility which will provide a new lease of life with a view to resuming a peaceful and serene dialogue between the three political partners of the agreements," it said.

    Not the first visit by a French president

    New Caledonian political science researcher and historian Dr Ismet Kurtovitch said Mr Macron's visit was a surprise but not unprecedented.

    "In 1985, in the middle of one of the highest points of the protests in New Caledonia in the 80s, the president [François] Mitterrand came [to New Caledonia], surprisingly," he said.

    Mr Macron is reportedly bringing along three senior members of his government: Minister of Interior Gérald Darmanin, Minister of Defence Sébastien Lecornu and Minister Delegate for Overseas Affairs Marie Guévenoux.

    Dr Kurtovitch said the purpose of Mr Macron's visit was to introduce these senior ministers who would "ease the talks" between groups for and against independence.

    He said the visit's other purpose was for Mr Macron to get a real sense of the situation on the ground.

    The AFP news agency reported that Mr Macron was expected to spend about 12 hours on the ground after up-turning his programme for the rest of the week just ahead of June's European elections.

    He last visited New Caledonia, in a trip boycotted by Kanak representatives, in July 2023.

    One presidential advisor told AFP on condition of anonymity the trip amounted to "double or quits".

    "It's a bet," they said, while an MP described the trip as a "poker move". 

    Such was the last-minute nature of the voyage, a schedule for the president was being drawn up during the 24-hour flight, without knowing who would be willing to meet him.

    "This is absolute improvisation," said a source close to Mr Macron.

    Will talks succeed?

    Monash University academic Nicholas Ferns, a historian of colonialism in the Pacific, pointed out that Mr Darmanin himself had been involved with the electoral reform while Mr Lecornu was minister for overseas affairs when the government decided to hold the territory's controversial third and final independence referendum in 2021.

    Representatives from the Indigenous Kanak community, which had just been devastated by the Delta COVID-19 variant and were observing traditional mourning customs, boycotted the vote after their requests for it to be delayed were ignored.

    Dr Ferns said Mr Macron's decision to bring the two politicians suggested he was "not terribly interested in bringing in impartial arbiters".

    "[Impartial arbiters] would be more effective than flying across the world accompanied by some of the key ministers involved in causing the immediate crisis," Dr Ferns said.

    "He may try to negotiate with both pro- and anti-independence leaders regarding the electoral reforms but at this stage, it doesn't seem like Macron intends to drop them."

    Dr Ferns said that economic inequality was a major problem in New Caledonia, and the divisions between the Indigenous Kanak population and European population had simmered for decades.

    "The economic downturn associated with a collapse of the nickel industry can be connected to the riots, which have largely involved the younger Kanak population, who have been affected by economic issues," he said.

    He said that in the longer term, Mr Macron and the French needed to "recognise some of the issues peculiar to New Caledonia".

    "This would also mean coming to terms with the colonial relationship between France and New Caledonia, which has been identified as a key issue by neighbouring governments throughout the Pacific, [and involve] working closely with Indigenous leaders to navigate the process regarding possible independence," he said.

    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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