Crisis brewing as France seeks changes to New Caledonia’s electoral rolls

As the French National Assembly and Senate debate changes to New Caledonia’s electoral laws, there are protests in the streets of Noumea from both supporters and opponents of independence.

Backed by local conservative politicians, French President Emmanuel Macron wants to open up the electoral rolls for New Caledonia’s three Provincial Assemblies and Congress. To relax current restrictions on thousands of French nationals who cannot vote in the local elections, legislation must pass through both houses of the French parliament, as well as a joint sitting required to amend provisions of the French Constitution.

The current push to change voting rules is raising concern amongst many French politicians who have been involved in New Caledonia’s long transition to a new political status. Writing in the French newspaper Libération, René Dosière and Jean-Jacques Urvoas argue that “it is plausible that this revision, proposed unilaterally in a difficult context, marks the end of a peaceful process and a possible return to tumult, which heralds new hostilities.”

As tensions rise in Noumea, the French National Assembly has voted to delay elections for New Caledonia’s assemblies and Congress, scheduled for May but now postponed until later this year.

On 23 March, New Caledonia’s main independence coalition Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) held a congress at Dumbea to forge a common front with other groups, aiming to delay these changes and continue a transition to an independent and sovereign state.

The French government, however, is moving ahead. Legislation to amend the electoral laws was studied by the Legal Commission of the French Senate on 20 March and examined by the full Senate on 26 March. Even as the independence movement and supporters in Paris seek amendments to the bill, it will be put to vote in the Senate on 2 April, before being debated in the National Assembly on 13 May.

It’s a complex process, as the electoral changes can only take effect after amendment of key provisions of the 1998 Noumea Accord, which are entrenched in the French Constitution. French courts ruled earlier this year that the government can only amend these laws at a joint sitting of both houses of parliament at the Palace of Versailles, where a three-fifths majority is required. President Macron hoped that political leaders in Noumea would strike a deal before this was required, but the current polarisation does not bode well for a smooth process.

As these parliamentary debates continue, political tensions are worsening in New Caledonia, amplified during a period of economic crisis. Trouble is brewing, even as political leaders pledge that they remain committed to developing a new political statute for the French Pacific dependency.

Elections delayed

Under the May 1998 Noumea Accord and subsequent legislation passed in March 1999, elections are held every five years for New Caledonia’s three provincial assemblies in the North, South and Loyalty Islands. A proportion of members from these assemblies make up the 54-member Congress of New Caledonia, which in turn appoints the 11-strong Government of New Caledonia.

The next local elections were scheduled for May, but the vote in the French National Assembly on 18 March has delayed the poll to an undetermined date before 15 December. In the Assembly, President Macron’s Renaissance party was backed by the extreme-Right Rassemblement National, Socialist Party and Republicans, while La France Insoumise, Greens and other Left parties opposed the change. The vote was backed by New Caledonia’s two deputies in the National Assembly, the anti-independence politicians Philippe Dunoyer and Nicolas Metzdorf.

Loyalist leader Sonia Backès also welcomed the vote. As President of New Caledonia’s Southern Province, she has long campaigned for an increase in the number of Congress seats for her province, reducing representation from Kanak-majority areas in the North and Loyalty Islands. After the National Assembly vote, Backès said the decision to delay the elections “opens the door to the most difficult part of the fight: constitutional reform aimed at unfreezing the electorate and, by amendment, rebalancing Congress.”

The postponement of the elections is designed to give time for the French government to open up the electoral rolls to more French voters, by relaxing residency rules on who can vote in local elections.

The restricted electorate for the local legislatures, currently limited to New Caledonian citizens, was a crucial achievement of the Noumea Accord. France’s Constitutional Court accepted the notion of “New Caledonian citizenship” and a restricted electorate in 1999, but proposed a “sliding” time limit on residency to decide who was eligible to vote. However, under President Jacques Chirac, this restriction was “frozen” in 2007, meaning only locally born New Caledonian citizens and those migrants who have been resident before 1998 can participate in elections for the local assemblies and Congress.

In a country of 276,000 people, there are currently more than 40,000 French nationals living in New Caledonia who cannot vote for the local institutions, so anti-independence parties have long campaigned to completely remove or at least “unfreeze” the residency requirement.

By amending the French Constitution, President Macron now seeks to open up the electoral rolls and allow thousands more voters to participate in the local elections later this year. Given an estimated 90% of these new voters live in the Southern Province and most are non-indigenous, such a change would boost support for anti-independence parties and shift the balance of forces in the local institutions (currently, the Congress and Government are both led by pro-independence Kanak politicians, who hold power with a narrow “islander majority” that links the independence parties and the Wallisian party Eveil océanien).

FLNKS spokesperson Pascal Sawa is the youthful mayor of the east coast town Waa Wi Lûû (Houaïlou) and a member of the Union Calédonienne (UC) party. Speaking to media after the FLNKS congress on 23 March, Sawa announced that “we hope that the constitutional bill for the ‘’unfreezing’ of the electorate will be withdrawn, either by the government or by the Senate or the National Assembly.”

While acknowledging the need for reform, Sawa questioned the current proposal for a shifting 10-year presence in New Caledonia, rather than the current fixed date of 1998 that determines citizenship: “Ten years will have a huge impact. The idea, as part of the transition of the country in the process of decolonisation, is to maintain balance. Bringing in 10,000 or 20,000 new voters would unbalance the entire electoral system of New Caledonia.”

Sawa said the independence movement wanted to delay the constitutional reform in Paris, to allow more time to forge a local consensus between supporters and opponents of independence. He also argued that any change to electoral rolls must be part of an overall negotiated package, rather than a stand-alone reform.

“We have always been in a constructive dialogue,” he said. “Today there are many points of convergence, but the work is not finished and therefore the unfreezing of the electoral rolls must be part of a global agreement.”

Roch Wamytan and Edouard Philippe

Political protests

The parliamentary manoeuvring in Paris comes at a time of economic crisis in Noumea.

As global nickel prices tumble, New Caledonia’s crucial nickel mining and smelting industry is in turmoil, as foreign investors withdraw capital and energy prices spiral. Grouped as the ‘Agissons solidaires’ collective, conservative politicians and workers from the mining and transport sectors have organised protests and blockades of petrol stations in Noumea and other towns, concerned about potential job losses in the nickel sector and government taxation on fuel.

The government led by President Louis Mapou is under pressure, as ordinary people feel the burden of increased cost of living. Anti-independence politicians have blocked initiatives to increase corporate taxation, and – facing community protests and a walk-out by Loyalist politicians from Congress – the government has just delayed plans to shift towards a more progressive taxation regime.

As leader of the anti-independence coalition Les Loyalistes, Sonia Backès is leading the campaign against the Mapou government. Speaking to a 5,000-strong protest rally of supporters outside the Congress of New Caledonia last week, Backès rejected the notion of special status for indigenous Kanak.

“We will not accept Kanaky here, because it is we here who are of all colours, it is we who represent the New Caledonian people in all their difference,” she told the crowd. “Their speech is ethnic, it is racist, it is nationalist. In another country, this would be considered far-Right speech. It is we who promote the common destiny. Our cause is the right one, not theirs.”

FLNKS mobilisation

In February, the largest independence party Union Calédonienne mobilised its supporters to push back against President Macron’s attempt to roll back the achievements of the Noumea Accord: “If the central government persists in its approach, UC will organise itself at all levels to defeat the French State’s plan to unfreeze the electoral rolls: on the streets, in the institutions, nationally and internationally.”

Through the CCAT collective of grassroots activists, the independence movement has organised street rallies and protests, while the FLNKS seeks to mobilise parliamentary support amongst the opposition in Paris. They are also working to alert international institutions about the looming crisis, from the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation and Non-Aligned Movement, to the Melanesian Spearhead Group and Pacific Islands Forum.

Last September, veteran Kanak politician Robert Xowie won a seat in the French Senate in Paris, an unprecedented victory over Loyalist leader Sonia Backès. During the Senate debate on 26 March, Xowie used this tribune to seek amendments to the pending legislation on electoral reform.

Independence supporters were shocked when Overseas Minister Gérald Darmanin appeared to mislead parliament as he addressed the Senate, misrepresenting the FLNKS position on new residency requirements for voters. In response, an FLNKS statement noted that independence leaders were “once again scandalised by the deceitful and manipulative behaviour of the Minister of the Interior and Overseas Territories during the Senate Legal Commission on 26 March 2024.”

Dominique Fochi, the current Secretary General of the FLNKS Political Bureau, highlighted the distrust held towards the French Overseas Minister, who is the driving force behind the current plan for constitutional reform: “The deceitful and mendacious attitude of Minister Gérald Darmanin disqualifies him from serving in the role of interlocutor with the FLNKS today.”

A new interlocutor?

Delegations from the French National Assembly and Senate have visited New Caledonia in recent weeks, to take soundings on local reactions to the proposed constitutional change on voting eligibility.

At the same time as the parliamentary debate in Paris, French politician Edouard Philippe was in Noumea last week. A former Prime Minister of France, Philippe is considering a run for the French Presidency in 2027 (re-elected for his second term last year, President Emmanuel Macron cannot run again in 2027, and a range of politicians are considering whether to stand against Marine Le Pen, the likely candidate of the extreme-Right Rassemblement National).

Edouard Philippe served as Prime Minister under President Macron between May 2017 and July 2020. During this period, he largely succeeded in building consensus between supporters and opponents of independence during the first two referendums on self-determination under the Noumea Accord. Despite his busy schedule, Philippe allocated extensive time and political capital to ensure that all parties would accept the results of referendums in November 2018 and October 2020.

As one example, in the immediate aftermath of the first referendum, Philippe flew from Paris to Noumea for one day, to personally consult with key leaders about next steps (this correspondent was invited to join the small press pool which accompanied the Prime Minister in a helicopter visit to meet Kanak leaders in the Northern Province, rather than require them to drive south to Noumea.)

When Philippe was dismissed as Prime Minister in 2020, his consultative approach was abandoned. Sébastien Lecornu (Darmanin’s predecessor as Overseas Minister) was notorious for a ‘crash through or crash’ style and – with Macron’s backing – was responsible for the fiasco of New Caledonia’s third referendum in December 2021. Lecornu pushed for the poll to be held a year earlier than expected, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, most independence supporters refused to participate.

Turnout for the third referendum halved in comparison to the previous polls in 2018 and 2020, and – while legal – the result lost all political credibility. Support for a Yes vote in favour of independence rose from 43% in 2018 to nearly 47% in 2020, but tumbled to just 3.5% in 2021, as most indigenous Kanak and other independence supporters stayed away from the polls, in a disciplined, peaceful and united protest.

At the time, an observer mission of Pacific Island Forum leaders reported that “the result of the referendum is an inaccurate representation of the will of registered voters and instead can be interpreted as a representation of a deep-seated ethnic division in New Caledonia, which the Committee fears has been exacerbated by the State’s refusal to postpone the referendum.”

During his latest visit to Noumea, Philippe sought to re-kindle past relationships with politicians across the spectrum. He held a lengthy meeting last week with Roch Wamytan, a veteran UC member who was one of the original signatories to the Noumea Accord, and today serves as President of the Congress of New Caledonia.

After the meeting, Wamytan said: “He’s someone we like in discussions, because he listens a lot. It is only after he has listened well, when he has understood, that he moves forward. The others, they just listen for two minutes and then for twenty minutes, they earbash us with diktats.”

“I have already had the opportunity to tell this to Darmanin”, Wamytan said. “His method is not the right one to move forward in discussions [between supporters and opponents of independence]. The proof is that they are stuck, with him as the interlocutor.”

Wamytan suggested that to advance negotiators on a new political statute for New Caledonia, “we need new interlocutors, perhaps a mission dispatched by the French government or personalities such as former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe.”

The call for a new interlocutor is echoed by other members of the FLNKS, with a statement from the independence coalition recalling that “throughout history, the independence movement has had the opportunity to work with reliable and honest high-ranking French State interlocutors, despite our differences.” The FLNKS called for “the establishment of a mediation mission led by a high-level dignitary, in order to guarantee the impartiality of the French State and to open a new phase of discussion.”

Will Darmanin step aside to allow a new interlocutor to overcome the current breakdown of trust? Serving as the Interior Minister as well as Overseas Minster, Darmanin is notorious for his hardline politics and domestic ‘law and order’ campaigns. At present, he retains the confidence of President Macron, who kept him in his post during the Cabinet reshuffle that followed the January 2024 resignation of Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne. After lengthy attempts in 2022-23 to negotiate a new statute, it seems the French government has now decided to crash through or crash.

Unity in the independence movement

After the FLNKS Congress on 23 March, FLNKS spokesperson Pascal Sawa suggested that the four parties in the independence coalition were considering opening its ranks to formally include other pro-independence forces, such as Parti Travailliste (PT), the Dynamique Unitaire Sud (DUS) and the USTKE trade union confederation.

“From a political point of view, from an institutional point of view,” Sawa said, “the FLN and the entire independence movement must be aligned and form a united bloc in relation to all the upcoming processes. There is a desire to open the FLNKS to the Parti Travailliste, to the DUS, and also to certain trade unions.”

Within the FLNKS, the Parti de Libération Kanak (Palika) and the Union progressiste en Mélanésie (UPM) have often differed with positions taken by Union Calédonienne, the major force in the four member-coalition. But as tensions mounted with the French State in February, Palika denounced “shameful” and “racist” statements by key Loyalist leaders.

While UC boycotted trilateral talks during recent visits by France’s Overseas Minister, Palika and UPM have been willing to meet Darmanin and Loyalist leaders – but that attitude is clearly fraying. As the FLNKS prepared for its Congress, UPM President Victor Tutugoro announced that his party will no longer participate in discussions with the anti-independence parties: “We’ve decided to stop talking to them.”

With protestors mobilising on the streets of Noumea, the parliamentary debate in Paris highlights the different visions for New Caledonia’s future. The French government, proclaiming ‘democracy” and Republican values, seeks to retain New Caledonia within the French Republic. In contrast, the FLNKS and other independence forces oppose attempts to roll back the achievements gained by the Kanak people over recent decades. They also call for any new statute to enshrine a clear pathway towards an independent and sovereign state.

They now look to regional support. As Pacific leaders meet in Tonga for the annual Pacific Islands Forum next August, will they side with France as a Forum Dialogue Partner or support the right to self-determination and an end to colonial administration in the 21st Century?