Apr 25, 2017 Last Updated 9:25 AM, Apr 12, 2017

Philippe Gomes is a happy man. His anti-independence party Calédonie Ensemble has done well in New Caledonia’s elections, gaining more seats than the conservative RassemblementUMP (RUMP) Party that has long dominated New Caledonian politics. In the 11 May vote for three provincial assemblies and national Congress, Calédonie Ensemble (CE) improved its vote over two major conservative rivals.

The result for CE is the latest in a series of defeats for the previously dominant RUMP, which suffered a major split last year, leading to the creation of the breakaway Union pour la Calédonie dans la France (UCF). In a post-election interview with Islands Business, Gomes stressed that his party’s victory in the Southern province comes at a crucial time, as New Caledonia moves to a decision on its future political status.

“We are entering into a special period – the exit from the Noumea Accord,” he said. “We must negotiate with the independence movement and prepare for a referendum. Facing supporters of independence like Paul Neaoutyine and Roch Wamytan, I think that New Caledonians wanted someone solid. They decided that that person is me, instead of the Rassemblement.”

While stressing the importance of maintaining ties with France, Gomes distinguished his party from the other pro-French coalitions: “I think that we’re more nationalist, even though we don’t support independence. We want New Caledonia to remain within the French Republic, but also that we should govern ourselves. That’s the difference between us and other pro-French parties that have remained very strongly dependent on France. France is 22,000 kilometres away!”

Stressing his support across Noumea and the Southern province, Gomes noted: “Even those people who normally don’t agree with my economic and social policies, they now say, ‘Gomes, he’s more certain’. In the southern suburbs of Noumea – the posh suburbs that have never voted for me before – this time, I won in all those suburbs.”

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Maritime border dispute flares up again

Sea border dispute between Vanuatu and New Caledonia has resulted in the arrest and conviction of a Chinese boat captain and members of his crew. New Caledonian maritime surveillance authorities claimed the long line vessel was fishing inside its territorial waters and slapped it with a US$5.5m fine. Hugues Gossvin of Navimon Fishing Company said the Hu Yu 911 ship was seized by the French Navy in December last year. He told reporters who attended an European Union funded Tuna workshop in Noumea that although the longliner was licensed to fish in Vanuatu waters, it was found fishing however within New Caledonian waters, a claim denied by the boat captain and the Government of Vanuatu.

“The catch and the ship has been confiscated and the crew are still negotiating their fate with the authorities,” said Gossvin. Crew members of Hu Yu 911 were still on the boat in Noumea when Islands Business toured the Navimon operation last February. Gossvin said New Caledonian authorities had considered selling the vessel. However the state of the vessel might not meet the high phytosanitary standards that the French demands of New Caledonian vessels. The fishing industry in this French territory only had long line fishing vessels and all are locally owned. “We do not have any distant water fishing nations’ boats fishing in our waters,” he said. It is understood the captain of the fishing boat was prosecuted in a Noumea court, found guilty of fishing illegally and fined.

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Debates over electoral rolls and alliances

The United Nations has sent a delegation to New Caledonia in the lead up to crucial municipal and provincial elections as supporters and opponents of independence joust over who should have the right to vote. The UN delegation arrived in New Caledonia in March in the midst of the electoral campaign for local town councils.

The visit also coincided with the arrival of French judges charged with updating the electoral rolls for national elections to be held on 11 May. According to a UN statement, the objective of the visit is to monitor “New Caledonia’s provincial electoral process, especially the technical issues related to the electoral lists for the provincial elections in May, as well as to uphold the spirit and letter of the 1998 Noumea Accord in this process.”

New Caledonia was relisted with the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation in 1986, and since that time the UN has maintained a watching brief over progress towards a referendum on self-determination in the French Pacific dependency. As Islands Business magazine goes to press, voters in New Caledonia are awaiting the results of two rounds of voting in municipal elections held on 23 and 30 March. The final results will give an indication of the balance of forces within and between political camps. A good result in the municipal elections will also provide momentum for political parties as they campaign for elections in May for New Caledonia’s three provincial assemblies and national Congress.

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Voting rights under challenge

Noumea debates citizenship and elections

As Noumea prepares to host the leaders of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) in June, there are new divisions in New Caledonia’s leading anti-independence party and debates over voting rights for next year’s crucial Congressional elections. Since it performed poorly in the June 2012 elections for the French National Assembly in Paris, the largest political party in New Caledonia’s Congress, the Rassemblement UMP (RUMP), has been in turmoil.

For months, RUMP President Pierre Frogier had been challenged by key lieutenants such as Sonia Backes and Gael Yanno, who were critical of his engagement with the FLNKS independence movement. Backes was RUMP’s acting Secretary-General and Yanno is a senior member of the Noumea town council and former representative in the National Assembly. Both were stood down from their positions last February, but ongoing disagreement with Frogier led to a formal split. On 28 March, Yanno announced the creation of a new conservative, anti-independence party named Mouvement Populaire Calédonien (MPC).

The MPC has called for a ‘Union for France’— uniting all political forces opposed to independence in New Caledonia. However, there is very little unity in the settler community. Beyond Frogier, MPC has expressed clear political differences with other anti-independence leaders such as Calédonie Ensemble’s Philippe Gomes. In turn, Gomes and RUMP have criticised current President of New Caledonia Harold Martin of the Avenir Ensemble party, who is currently under legal investigation after allegations of improper land sales.

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Selling nickel to Asia

SMSP transforms New Caledonian mining

New Caledonia’s nickel industry is being transformed as new joint ventures and exports to Asia challenge France’s control of the strategic minerals sector. New Caledonia holds more than 25 percent of the world’s nickel reserves, as well as other strategic metals. The mining, processing and export of these ores are central to New Caledonia’s political as well as economic future, as the country moves to a new political status after 2014. The FLNKS independence movement sees the control of the islands’ major industry as a key part of their struggle.

Historically, New Caledonia’s nickel sector has been dominated by Société le Nickel (SLN), a subsidiary of the French corporation ERAMET, which in turn is controlled by the French government through its FSI strategic investment fund. But there has long been tension between the French state and local New Caledonian interests over the management of the industry. During the nickel boom of the late 1960s and 1970s, SLN lobbied the French government to restrict investment from overseas competitors. SLN’s dominant position was assisted by the 1969 Billotte laws, which increased Paris’ control of mining regulation, transferred the authority to set export quotas to the French Ministry of Industry and effectively restricted access by Canadian and Australian nickel companies.

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