08 March 2011

Challenges to New Caledonia Political Development Analysed by Prominent Pacific Expert Nic Maclellan

Political developments in the non self-governing territory of Kanaky (New Caledonia) continue to unfold with the recent fall of the elected government, the visit by the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and a potential  stalemate among the political parties. Overseas Territories Review (OTR) is pleased to provide  a series of articles by the esteemed Pacific expert Nic Maclellan whose political and socio-economic analysis on the complexities of Kanaky (New Caledonia) provides crtical perspective on issues affecting the situation on the ground. OTR expresses its appreciation to Nic for providing the material.

New Caledonia debates citizenship, development and new ties to the region

by Nic Maclellan

On a cloudy Saturday morning in August, a small crowd gathered outside the headquarters of the Southern Province in New Caledonia’s capital, Noumea.

There were speeches, prayers and the singing of the French and New Caledonian national anthems. Then Pierre Frogier of the anti-independence Rassemblement Party and Charles Pidjot of the FLNKS independence movement stood side by side, to slowly raise two flags to the skies.

For the first time, the blue, white and red tri-colour of the French Republic and the multi-coloured flag of Kanaky were both flying outside la Maison Bleue—the “Blue House”—which hosts the Southern provincial administration.

The ceremony follows calls for both flags to be flown outside town halls, schools and other government offices. This has been a common practice since the 1980s in the Kanak-dominated Northern and Loyalty Islands provinces. But in the South, a bastion of anti-independence sentiment, the sight of the two flags flying sends chills down the spine of many onlookers who remember the conflict that divided this French Pacific territory between 1984 and 1988.

For Frogier, “the two flags represent the recent history of our human community”. But for other opponents of independence, the Kanaky flag remains a potent symbol. It was first raised in December 1984 by the late Jean-Marie Tjibaou as he declared the Provisional Government of Kanaky.

As President of the Southern Province and representing New Caledonia in the French National Assembly, Frogier has ambitions to serve as France’s Minister for Overseas Territories. The conservative leader called for a debate on the flag in a major speech last February.and on July 13, New Caledonia’s Congress passed a law calling for the two flags to be flown outside public buildings.

Days later, during a visit to Noumea, French Prime Minister François Fillon witnessed the hoisting of both flags outside the French High Commission. For some Kanaks, it seemed the spirit of the ancestors was smiling that day: footage of the event shows the flag of Kanaky fluttering proudly in the breeze, while the French flag floats limply by the flagpole.

Frogier has rejected calls by New Caledonia’s President Philippe Gomes to develop one new flag to unite all citizens, arguing that the two flags are a symbol of the “two legitimacies” that co-exist in New Caledonia: “The national flag is the symbol of French sovereignty over our islands, while for many of us, the Kanak flag was a symbol of violence and division. We fought against it…now that time has passed. Now, we’ve decided to work together and the best symbol of this reconciliation is that our two flags are flying side by side in the skies of New Caledonia.”

For Kanak leader Rock Wamytan, leader of the FLNKS group in New Caledonia’s Congress, the two flags symbolise the path already taken towards decolonisation and political independence.

Wamytan recalled that his two grandfathers both fought in the French army under the French flag, at a time they were not allowed to vote.

He called on non-indigenous residents of New Caledonia to adopt the flag of Kanaky as their own: “This is no longer a flag of exclusion, it’s a flag that can bring us together. We call on all those who still have a fear of our flag, to take a step towards us, to build a common destiny together.”

Enacting the Noumea Accord

The debate about the flags highlights the changes underway since the signing of the Noumea Accord on May 5, 1998, between the French government, anti-independence politicians and the independence coalition Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS).

The Noumea Accord maps out a transition over 15 years (1999-2014), involving the creation of new political institutions, the gradual transfer of legislative and administrative authority from Paris to Noumea, and then the scheduling of three referenda after 2014 to determine New Caledonia’s final political status.

The transfer of powers from Paris to Noumea is progressing slowly but steadily, and the creation of new political institutions has transformed the country in comparison to the 1980s.

New Caledonia’s multi-party government is seeking to promote a new sense of citizenship and common identity in New Caledonia, a “common destiny” that transcends the divisions of the 1980s. On August 18, congress approved a new national anthem, motto and banknote designs, as part of a programme to develop new national symbols.

But while they welcome greater autonomy and funding from Paris, anti-independence leaders still re-affirm their loyalty to the French Republic. They seek a further compromise to avoid a referendum after 2014 that would see the final transfer of the remaining sovereign powers (defence, foreign policy, police, justice and currency) to an independent and sovereign nation.

In contrast, Kanak independence leaders stress that the Noumea Accord process is a decolonisation process. They argue that all parties must uphold the timetable for change and commitments made at the recent Committee of Signatories to the Accord, which met in Paris on June 24.

These contrasting perspectives mean New Caledonia will inevitably force its way back onto the regional agenda.

As New Caledonia seeks closer links with the Pacific Islands Forum, the country is moving towards a decision on its political future. Time is short and the graffiti around town says “2014 Knky” –Kanaky in 2014.

Symbols and substance

Can new symbols transcend the social, cultural and economic divisions that still linger in New Caledonia?

Measures of economic and social “rebalancing” are central to the Noumea Accord, but there’s still a way to go. There’s an ongoing social and economic division between the indigenous Kanak people and settlers and immigrants who have made New Caledonia their home.

In spite of migration from rural areas to the capital, European and Wallisian voters opposed to independence hold sway in the Southern Province, while the indigenous Kanak population (who largely support independence) dominate in the rural provinces.

Speaking to the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation last May, FLNKS spokesperson Victor Tutugoro detailed the gulf between Noumea and the bush–

• 95 percent of houses in the Southern Province have running water, compared to 60 percent in the North and 25 percent in the Loyalty Islands;

• 85 percent of total household revenue goes to the Southern Province, with only 11 percent to the North and 3.9 percent to the Loyalty Islands;

• 95 percent of houses in the Southern Province are linked to the electric grid compared to just 77 percent in the outlying provinces —at least one in six houses in the Kanak-dominated rural areas use kerosene lamps;

• In the Northern Province, two thirds of the population aged 14 and over don’t have a secondary diploma, compared to one third in the Southern province.

Preliminary data from the 2009 census was released late last year, showing New Caledonia’s population at 245,580. But the results of questions on ethnicity from this latest census will not be released until later this year—data that will reveal the size of the different ethnic communities, levels of immigration from France and whether Kanaks are still a minority in their own land.

Electoral reforms bring change

The Noumea Accord introduced a range of local political institutions: three provincial assemblies in the North, South and Loyalty Islands, a 54-member Congress and an 11-member multi-party Government of New Caledonia.

Issues that affect Kanak identity are also debated through the 16-member Senate for Kanak customary chiefs, which must be consulted on questions such as land tenure.

The Customary Senate includes two representatives from each of New Caledonia’s eight indigenous regions (Hoot Ma Whaap; Paicî-Cèmuhî; Drubéa-Kapumë; Ajië-Arhö; Xârâcùù; Iaai; Drehu; Nengone). On August 30, new members took up their seats after the latest elections for the Senate, led by incoming Senate President Pascal Sihaze from the island of Lifou.

Ever since the 1970s, the issue of electoral reform has been a central concern for the Kanak independence movement. When the late Tjibaou negotiated the Matignon Accord in 1988, independence leaders called for limitations on voting rights for the many French nationals who arrive in the territory—especially as these public servants, soldiers, teachers and retirees overwhelmingly vote for parties opposed to independence.

These electoral reforms were finally introduced into law in February 2007 in the dying days of Jacques Chirac’s presidency.

This decision has had a significant impact, restricting voting rights for local institutions to long-term residents rather than all French nationals living in the islands.

In May 2009, some 18,230 people residents in New Caledonia—11.8 percent of the normal electoral roll—were ineligible to vote in the local elections, even though they still participated in elections for political institutions in Paris.

This restriction largely affected people in Noumea: in 2009, only 420 “excluded” voters lived in the Loyalty Islands Province and 954 in the Northern Province. In contrast, there are nearly 17,000 “excluded” voters in the Southern Province, where the bulk of the European and Wallisian population reside (amounting to 16.7 percent of the Southern electorate).

Before travelling to Paris in September, RUMP leader Pierre Frogier suggested that these restrictions should be removed—a proposal that will be fiercely resisted by the FLNKS.

Beyond voting rights, the other central focus of the citizenship debate is employment and the promotion of emploi local, or priority for New Caledonians in the local labour market. Debate over local employment is tied to concern about ongoing migration from France and also the Pacific territory of Wallis and Futuna.

Thousands of people have arrived since the late 1980s, while young Kanaks find it hard to get the qualifications needed for jobs in the wage sector. After years of debate, the congress finally passed a law on July 27, this year for “the protection, support and promotion of local employment”.

The new law gives priority to both New Caledonian citizens and people who meet certain long-term residency requirements; establishes a commission for conciliation and standards setting; and sets out a list of professions where overseas recruitment can be prioritised in the absence of locally trained workers.

Political cleavages

In spite of the rhetoric of unity and common destiny, there are still sharp political cleavages in New Caledonian society.

Following the last Congressional and Assembly elections on May 10, 2009, there are 31 members of anti-independence parties in the Congress and 23 independence supporters.

The conservative Rassemblement UMP (RUMP), with 13 seats, is the largest political party in the Congress. However, in 2009, pro-independence parties increased their representation in the Congress by five seats, compared to the last elections in 2004 (when disunity meant no pro-independence candidates won seats in the South).

Anti-independence parties dominate the Southern Province Assembly but are largely irrelevant outside the capital Noumea.

In 2009, opponents of independence won only two of the 22 seats in the Northern Assembly and, for the first time ever, lost all their seats in the Loyalty Islands.

Last year’s elections were marked by competition between the anti-independence parties, highlighted by a drop in votes for the RUMP, the decline of the Avenir Ensemble Party (AE) and success for the new Calédonie Ensemble Party (CE), led by Philippe Gomes, who won the position of President of the Government of New Caledonia.

Under the Noumea Accord, New Caledonia has a multi-party government, with representation determined proportionally according to the strength of party groupings in the Congress. After the 2009 elections, the Gomes government includes seven members from anti-independence groups (three from CE, three from RUMP and one from AE-LMD), and four from pro-independence groups (three from Union Calédonienne and one from Palika).

Although the government is supposed to work in a spirit of consensus and “collegiality”, there are tensions within as well as between the pro- and anti-independence camps.

Relations between the three leading anti-independence politicians Gomes, Frogier and Harold Martin have soured in recent months, in spite of pledges to maintain a “republican compact” amongst the pro-French parties.

For months, President Gomes has been increasingly isolated, as the six government members from RUMP and Union Calédonienne have often combined as a majority to amend or reject his legislative proposals.

During the Congressional debate on national symbols on August 13, Frogier angrily denounced President Gomes as the “leader of a gang” and bad blood continues.

The same problem exists for the Avenir Ensemble Party, which dominated government in 2004-09 but is now split into three warring groupings. Speaker of the Congress and former president Harold Martin has fallen out with businessman Didier Leroux, co-founder of the party, with Leroux resigning as party president and then from the party itself.

The war of words continued after Martin replaced Leroux as chair of the OPT post and telecommunications office, with both facing allegations of corruption and favouritism.

Tensions in the independence camp

Due to their dominance in the Northern and Loyalty Islands Provinces, there is also a sharp political contest between Union Calédonienne (UC) and the Parti de Liberation Kanak (Palika), the largest members of the FLNKS coalition.

There have always been lively differences between the different members of the independence movement, but polemics have become sharper over recent months between leaders such as UC President Charles Pidjot and Palika leader Paul Neaoutyine, President of the Northern Province.

Pidjot has also refused to recognise the authority of the official FLNKS spokesman, UPM’s Victor Tutugoro.

After leading an MSG (Melanesian Spearhead Group) ministerial mission to New Caledonia earlier this year, Vanuatu Prime Minister Edward Natapei told ISLANDS BUSINESS: “It’s quite clear from the way the Kanaks are operating that they are not as united as they used to be.

“There seemed to be differences between the groups such as that of Roch Wamytan and Neaoutyine and they have alliances with others who are not necessarily Kanak.

“We insisted that it is important they come together and speak with one voice if we are to help them.”

The FLNKS will hold a special congress on December 4-5 to try to develop a united strategy for the independence movement, but there are serious debates over the best way forward.

International diplomacy

The internal debate within the FLNKS has been complicated by the rise of the new Parti Travailliste (Labour Party), an independence party which draws support from the USTKE trade union confederation and other disenchanted FLNKS supporters.

Louis Kotra Uregei, unionist turned businessman who leads the party, told ISLANDS BUSINESS that while his party is still small, it has achieved significant success since its founding in November 2007.

“After we ran well in the 2008 municipal elections, we ran our own tickets in each province for the 2009 Provincial Assembly elections. We won 12 percent of the vote in the Northern Province and over 20 percent in the Loyalty Islands, a good showing for such a new party. We then increased our vote in the Loyalty Islands during the December 2009 by-elections,” Uregei said.

He added: “With our call for independence in 2014, we will continue to get support from the Kanak people. We hope the Pacific region will support us in our struggle.”

As 2014 approaches, the independence movement is seeking to maintain international attention and support.

This international lobbying began in the 1980s, with FLNKS leaders like the late Yann Céléné Uregei and Tjibaou seeking regional solidarity and diplomatic support.

A major breakthrough came in December 1986, when the UN General Assembly re-listed New Caledonia as a non-self-governing territory, bringing the case before the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation.

For years, France had refused international scrutiny of the self-determination process. But last May, nearly 24 years after the General Assembly resolution, the governments of New Caledonia and France invited the UN Special Committee to hold its regional seminar in Noumea, a signal of greater openness to international attention.

Earlier this year, French High Commissioner Yves Dassonville joined President Gomes to lead an 11-member delegation to Australia, seeking closer regional ties.

A ministerial mission from the four Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) countries also visited New Caledonia between June 8-11, to assess the level of progress made in the implementation of the Noumea Accord.

The mission—led by Vanuatu’s Natapei—was critical of the lack of progress to support Kanaks to take over the administration of key sectors.

Natapei noted: “The referendum in the period 2014-2018 is fast approaching. It is rather too late to get some of the basic requirements under the Noumea Accord dealt with.”

This message was passed on to the United Nations in June, with Fiji’s UN Ambassador Peter Thomson formally telling the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation: “As a result of the visit to New Caledonia, the mission expressed some concerns on the slow rate of progress in the implementation of the Noumea Accord.

“Having said this, the mission also noted that a lot of work still has to be done, not only at the political level but in terms of capacity building as well, in preparation for the realisation of the Accord.”

New Caledonia gained Pacific Islands Forum observer status at the Palau leaders meeting in 1999, upgrading to associate membership at the Forum meeting in Fiji in 2006.

In recent years, conservative politicians like Martin and Gomes have been lobbying to upgrade New Caledonia’s status even further. However, the August Forum meeting in Port Vila saw a significant rebuff, with islands leaders encouraging New Caledonia “to continue their dialogue with France in order to be able to satisfy the full membership requirements of the Forum” (i.e. independence!).

The final Forum communiqué noted: “Recognising that a number of issues relating to New Caledonia’s international standing would be resolved as it advanced with France the self-determination process under the Noumea Accord, leaders requested the Forum Secretariat to explore further with New Caledonia ways in which its engagement and role within the Forum could be expanded and enhanced, including through the reactivation of dialogue through the Forum’s Ministerial Committee on New Caledonia.”

It seems New Caledonia’s future political relations with the Forum will be tied to other French colonies in the region. Speaking at the end of the Vanuatu meeting, incoming Forum chair Natapei suggested the future of the three French possessions were inter-related: “There was French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, and New Caledonia which were taken up as a group that need to go through the whole process to qualify to be admitted as members of the Forum.

“The position the leaders took was to consider the three because they are all countries that we would like to see take up their rightful place in the Pacific community.”

If New Caledonia’s regional engagement is tied to French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna, there’s going to be some delays. Unlike the Noumea Accord, autonomy statutes in French Polynesia do not include a vote on self-determination.

In recent weeks, there have been some hints from Paris that French Polynesia could get an agreement similar to the Noumea Accord. But until now, the French state has made no commitments recognising the right to self-determination for the Maohi people.

While Paris remains committed to the Noumea Accord process, it’s clear the current French government does not envisage independence for its other colonies.

In a January 2010 speech, in Reunion, President Nicolas Sarkozy stated that France’s overseas territories “are French and will remain French”. He stressed that there is “one red line that I will never accept should be crossed: that of independence.”

While the official rhetoric from the FLNKS welcomes the French state as a partner “accompanying” New Caledonians in the Noumea Accord, many grassroots independence supporters do not see the French state as a neutral umpire.

For New Caledonia, there’s more change to come. Two flags are flying in Noumea, but one young independence activist told me: “It’s good to see both flags flying, but eventually there should only be one—and it’s going to be ours.”



The Noumea Accord agreed to create new signes identitaires or national symbols, as part of the transition to a referendum on New Caledonia’s final political status.

Article 1.5 of the Accord states: “The country’s national symbols—name, flag, anthem, currency, design of bank notes—will need to be devised in common to express both Kanak identity and the future in which all will share. The Constitution Act on New Caledonia will provide for the possibility of changing this name by law of the country adopted with a qualified majority. The country’s name may be printed on identity papers as a sign of citizenship.”

Even after the election of a local government in 1999, many politicians were reluctant to take up the issue, fearing that attempts to design symbols of national unity could cause divisions between supporters and opponents of independence.

Should the islands be known as New Caledonia, Kanaky or a combination like Kanaky-New Caledonia?

Should the multi-coloured flag adopted by the FLNKS independence movement replace the blue, white and red of the French tri-colour?

Can the new symbols give recognition to Kanak identity, but also show respect for the European and islander immigrants who have made New Caledonia their home?

After many years of delay, a working group was convened on April 11, 2007 by Kanak poet, author and political activist Déwé Gorodé, who serves as Minister for Culture and Citizenship in the Government of New Caledonia. Supported by technical experts, the committee of political, church, union and community leaders began discussing the symbols.

They launched a competition to choose new designs for bank notes, a national anthem to replace the Marseillaise, and a motto to reflect both Kanak identity and the multi-cultural nature of the society.

On August 13, New Caledonia’s Congress voted to adopt a new motto, national anthem and design for bank notes. Speaking to ISLANDS BUSINESS, Déwé Gorodé said: “These new symbols reflect the unity we are trying to create in our society and the new notion of citizenship.”

The government is also seeking to transform September 24 into a citizenship day. For many years, this date was a day of mourning or protest for Kanak nationalists, marking the anniversary of the annexation of New Caledonia by France in 1853.

Today, rather than serving as a commemoration of France’s ongoing colonial presence, the Government of New Caledonia is seeking to transform the meaning of the day into a positive date, where New Caledonian citizens can share their “common destiny.”

The Mwâ Kâ statue in central Noumea—a 12-metre high totem carved by sculptors from New Caledonia’s eight indigenous region—is a rallying point for citizenship ceremonies.

Gorodé says the celebration of citizenship on September 24 combines with other initiatives: “It is through these steps—the transfer of administrative powers from Paris to Noumea, the adoption of the national symbols, a law on local employment, a project to develop an identity card for local citizens, together with other supporting measures—that we will lay the foundations of a New Caledonian citizenship.”

The citizenship debate comes at a time when there’s new energy in Kanak cultural media. The long-running Radio Djiido and the cultural magazine Mwà Véé, produced from the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, are now joined by women’s papers, music magazines and glossies like Palabre coutoumier, which profiles leading figures in the Kanak community and documents new initiatives to preserve and promote local languages, arts and culture.

In the coming years, control over the Agence de Développement de la Culture Kanak (ADCK) and the Tjibaou Cultural Centre will pass from Paris to Noumea. Together with the new Academy of Kanak Languages, these agencies host a range of cultural exchanges which have shared ideas and inspiration between regional and local artists and performers.

In September, New Caledonia hosted the 4th Melanesian Festival of the Arts, while around Noumea, there’s a range of galleries and exhibitions that highlight Kanak culture: a display of traditional engraved bamboos at the Museum of New Caledonia; paintings of village life by contemporary Kanak artist Yvette Bouquet; and an exhibition at the Tjibaou Centre on the robe mission—this “Mother Hubbard” dress that missionaries encouraged to hide the nakedness of savages is worn today by Kanak women of all ages, while Western tourists bathe topless on the beaches of Anse Vata and Baie de Citrons in Noumea’s chic tourist enclaves.