THIERRY Santa attended his first Pacific Islands Forum in August, just weeks after his election as president of the Government of New Caledonia. Leader of the anti-independence party Rassemblement-Les Républicains, President Santa is a key figure in the conservative coalition Avenir en Confiance (The Future with Confidence), which took control of New Caledonia’s southern province during May 2019 elections.
Islands Business spoke with President Santa about regional relations, climate policy, New Caledonian independence and his “baptism of fire” at the Forum leaders’ retreat in Tuvalu.
IB: How did you survive your first time at a Forum leaders’ retreat, which ran for more than 12 hours in Funafuti?
Thierry Santa: It was a real baptism of fire, because the discussions were extremely lengthy, especially concerning the Climate Declaration that the Forum hoped to carry to the UN Climate Action Summit and COP25. This declaration addresses the adverse effects of climate change in the Pacific and particularly on atoll nations like Tuvalu, which are amongst the first to be directly affected. It is a cry for help.
Facing the other way was Australia, which has constraints related to its economy and industry. We found a point of consensus on the need to address the provisions of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Everyone finally agreed to respect their commitments, including Australia - which is a signatory of the Paris Agreement - to keep temperature rises below 1.5°C, to meet their obligation to address carbon emissions, halving them by 2030 and reducing to zero by 2050.
The final declaration has the added strength of being adopted by all members of the Pacific Islands Forum. We can speak with one voice before these international summits and that’s a good thing.
IB: Were there difficult moments during the discussion, given Australia’s climate policies are contested by smaller island states?
Thierry Santa: Yes, there were certainly some pretty tense moments, although still involving deep respect amongst all the participants. Australia certainly defended its industry, particularly around the production of coal, but the Australian Prime Minister was aware of the cry for help coming from other Forum members. That allowed us to make the necessary compromises so that everyone could sign on to the final declaration, allowing us to speak with one voice at the forthcoming international meetings.
It’s true, though, that there were heated moments of debate. We must acknowledge the role of the New Zealand Prime Minister, who at times found the necessary wording that allowed us to forge a consensus between the urgent needs of the island nations and the constraints facing Australian Prime Minister Morrison.
IB: After New Caledonia joined the Forum in 2016, the previous government of New Caledonia led by Philippe Germaine began strengthening ties with neighbouring countries. Given you replaced President Germaine, does your new government have different priorities?
Thierry Santa: We’ve only been in office for a month, but we’re certainly following the path set out by President Germaine during his term of office. He did an excellent job in building regional cooperation, with partnership agreements already signed with several Pacific Island countries, such as Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu and New Zealand. We are currently training delegates who will act as our government’s representatives in these countries where we’ve signed or will sign agreements.
So, we’re in the same dynamic as the previous government. My presence at the Forum, just one month after being elected president, is a sign of the priority that we place on our regional ties.
The economic and trade ties are certainly a priority, but not the only one. We share a common interest in protecting our environment and our biodiversity, as was discussed at the Forum through the “Blue Pacific” agenda. New Caledonia can contribute its expertise on these matters, such as the work we are doing on renewable energy or adding value to our natural resources.
IB: Going back many years, several New Caledonian anti-independence leaders have suggested that the Government of New Caledonia rather than the Front de Libération National Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) should be the full member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG). Is now the time to make this change?
Thierry Santa: I’m not sure if now is the right time, but the desire is still there! I’ve raised this with both Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, which is ready to support our request that New Caledonia be a full member of the MSG. But this is a discussion we must have at home with the independence movement. To my understanding, they want to remain as the sole member from New Caledonia within the MSG.
IB: Under the Noumea Accord, the French State continues to control the “sovereign powers” of defence, policing, security and many aspects of foreign policy. Does this create problems for your government within the Forum, as it discusses topics such as West Papua?
Thierry Santa: On this sort of topic, I made clear to each of my counterparts that these issues come under the authority of the French State and not my government. Even though we have a close relationship with the State, New Caledonia is unable to act on this matter. Despite this constraint, we can still have opinions about the topic, as long as they conform to the national policies of France and the French State.
We can act, however, within the framework of the Boe Declaration, which states that climate change is the “single greatest threat” to security. New Caledonia has authority over environmental questions and that’s why we have taken the decision to send a geo-technician to work with the Pacific Fusion Centre in Canberra. That’s our small contribution to the challenge of climate change and security, and regional security in general.
So even though we are aware of the powers held by our government and those held by the French State, we can still contribute to the benefit of all the islands in the region.
IB: There was no mention of New Caledonia in this year’s Forum communiqué, despite the recent referendum on self-determination and the importance of the issue in past years. With another referendum to be held in 2020, should the Forum be doing more or do you want them to stay out of the way?
Thierry Santa: During the 1980s, the Forum carried the demands of the independence movement. Today, it is more oriented to the wishes of the New Caledonian people. That’s the stage we’re at today. There has been a first referendum with the decision to remain within France. There will be another referendum - it’s already been requested by New Caledonia’s Congress - but the date must be set by the French State according to the provisions of New Caledonia’s organic law. If the result of this vote is again negative, there could be a third referendum.
I think that the result of a second referendum will not change, because the short time between votes will not fundamentally change the political balance. That’s why I’ve been saying to my colleagues in the independence movement: if the second vote is No, we should not proceed to a third vote, but should sit around the table to reflect on the need for a new agreement that meets the wishes of the New Caledonia people. We should consider the possibility of a new institutional arrangement within the French Republic but with the greatest possible autonomy, which takes account of the demands of the Kanak people.
IB: Last November, I witnessed the shock on many loyalist faces at the 43 per cent support for independence in the first referendum. Given that many opinion polls said the independence movement would only gain 30 per cent support or less, is it possible there will be another surprise next year?
Thierry Santa: I was very cautious about the polling for our provincial elections in May, given our experience of opinion polls that predicted one result but clearly didn’t match the final result. Despite this, the referendum result 57/43 is a clear statement by the New Caledonian people. Within one or two per cent, this reflects the 60/40 balance that has been seen for three decades in our provincial elections, with maybe a small bonus for the independence movement.
What has disappointed much of the loyalist population is that during the 30 years of agreements where we’ve worked together, the concerns of the Kanak population have been considered. So, there is an element of disappointment on the part of the pro-French, loyalist population.
However, I don’t think we need to give away the belief that we are in an emancipation process in New Caledonia that can still be maintained within the French Republic. Personally, I believe that we should develop a consensus statute that addresses the aspirations of the Kanak minority but without rupturing our ties with the French Republic. France still provides not only significant financial support - worth billions of Pacific francs each year - but also security within our Pacific region.
I sensed during the Forum meeting that there are strategic interests being promoted by diverse actors in the Indo-Pacific region, not only China but also the United States, Australia and New Zealand. If our small Pacific nation of 300,000 people did not have the support of a major European power, we could be swept up in this geopolitical storm. That’s why I want to maintain our ties with France and the protection it provides for our democracy.
IB: Next April, French President Macron will visit French Polynesia and will host a France-Oceania Summit. Is this an important meeting for you to build regional relations?
Thierry Santa: I think it’s a very good initiative by President Macron, within his framework of the Indo-Pacific axis. This fits in with the logic of the United States, Australia, Japan and other countries to protect the Pacific from external powers, whether it’s nations like China or other actors like large economic corporations. By ourselves, we can’t resist these forces, so we need support from outside to maintain regional peace and democracy.
(Translation from French by Nic Maclellan)