After difficult discussions, agreement has been reached on the question to be put in the November 4, 2018 referendum on New Caledonia's independence. But tricky negotiations continue. France, the colonial power, is claiming to be neutral, but is apparently acceding to pressure from extreme pro-France elements.
The independence referendum is the final stage in implementing the Matignon and Noumea Accords that have presided over 30 years of stability and economic growth. Negotiations represent a real re-definition of France's regional presence. The situation is fragile, as both pro-independence and pro-France groupings deal with extreme elements.
It took a meeting in Paris – and 15 hours of tough negotiation – before French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced an agreement, on March 27, on the referendum question's wording. The question asked will be, "Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent? Yes or no."
The prime minister said that local parties will now have to explain to the electorate what they mean by supporting a "Yes" or a "No" vote. The French state will also, "explain the implications" of both outcomes.
The most extreme loyalists wanted a clear choice between "independence" and "staying with France". Paradoxically the pro-independence parties weren't wedded to the term "independence", preferring "full sovereignty", which is based on the hard-won wording in the Noumea Accord itself. That accord nowhere mentions the word "independence".
Both sides knew that stating the choice starkly risked alienating many pro-independence supporters who favour increased sovereignty while retaining benefits from France. In the final compromise, the pro-independence groups accepted the word "independence" along with "full sovereignty", and the pro-France groups accepted that there would be no reference to France.
But the sides didn"t agree on an accompanying declaration of values commissioned by Philippe through the new Committee of Ten (C10) that he set up last December. Despite initially agreeing with a draft, two of the most right-wing pro-France leaders withdrew from the group in late February. They claimed that the group favoured the independence side because it referred to the damaging effect of colonisation on the Kanak people, and to New Caledonia remaining on the UN Decolonisation List if the "No" side wins the vote.
Their position was disingenuous since the wording on the effect of colonisation drew directly from the Noumea Accord itself. Besides, it's up to the UN to decide when to remove New Caledonia from its list of non–self-governing territories, not local leaders. Because there's potentially a three-step referendum process (the Congress of New Caledonia can decide to hold up to two more referendums if the "No" vote prevails), it seems unlikely that the UN Decolonisation Committee would rush to de-list New Caledonia after the first vote in November.
Philippe has insisted that dialogue must continue. To ensure participation by the alienated loyalist leaders, he named his own representative for future C10 meetings – François Seners, a former adviser to conservative prime minister François Fillon. The C10 has until now been chaired by the French High Commissioner in Noumea, Thierry Lataste. Lataste is a founding negotiator of the 1988 Matignon and 1998 Noumea Accords, and enjoys strong ties with all the key local political groups.
But Lataste has been criticised by hardline pro-France groups for not cracking down heavily enough on violence and burglaries by local Kanak youth, a sensitive issue in the hothouse New Caledonian environment. He's respected by the pro-independence side.
"The French state appears to be supporting extreme nationalist loyalist leaders"
While Lataste will apparently chair the next C10 meeting in April, Philippe's new personal appointee to future meetings blurs Lataste's role. It's not the first time the French state has appointed figures with a right-wing bent to commissions preparing for New Caledonia's future, to appease loyalist leaders.
While Philippe's motives can be viewed as fostering continuing dialogue, which was essential to a peaceful transition after the Noumea Accord, the French state appears to be supporting extreme nationalist loyalist leaders of relatively small political groups. This helps boost their position both in the current referendum preparations, and for the impending 2019 local elections.
Philippe Gomès, the leader of moderate loyalist Calédonie Ensemble (Caledonia Together), the party with by far the largest number of seats in the local congress, has worked long and hard for years to reach out to the pro-independence side, and supported the wording of the draft declaration. He risks being marginalised, which could disrupt ongoing referendum negotiations and influence the 2019 elections, to the advantage of the most nationalist of the French parties.
As the territory gears up to welcome President Emmanuel Macron in early May, real risks and questions remain. Can negotiations progress on a declaration of common values, and can France organise the campaign, particularly information material, even-handedly, without a pro-independence backlash?
Will the current pattern of violence and misdemeanour by Kanak youth degenerate into something more? Does Seners' appointment undermine the authority of High Commissioner Lataste at this delicate time, not least as he's the senior French official responsible for security?