Independence leader takes top job in New Caledonia

After months of delay, New Caledonia finally has a new leader. Louis Mapou was elected as President of New Caledonia on 8 July, the first time in nearly 40 years that a Kanak independence leader will head the government of the French Pacific dependency.

After French President Francois Mitterrand was elected in 1981, he moved to reform systems of government in New Caledonia. As head of the Territorial Council, French High Commissioner Christian Nucci appointed independence leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou as his Vice President in June 1982. The charismatic Kanak leader quickly formed a coalition government between the Independence Front and the centrist party FNSC. This progressive coalition faced massive opposition from anti-independence settlers and lasted just two years, before New Caledonia descended into armed conflict in late 1984.

Describing his election as “an honour and a privilege”, President Mapou harked back to the reforming tradition of the Tjibaou coalition four decades ago: “We must carry a heavy heritage, that of our figurehead Jean-Marie Tjibaou.”

The Tjibaou government attempted rapid reforms to New Caledonia’s colonial economy: introducing family allowances; boosting tourism through the creation of the international airline Aircalin; integration of Kanak languages into teaching; and tackling inflation and economic turmoil at the end of the 1970s nickel boom.

It will be much harder to advance a progressive agenda today. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and US-China geopolitical tensions, President Mapou leads a multi-party government where half the members oppose his economic and political program. Beyond this, the French government has unilaterally announced that New Caledonia’s third referendum on self-determination under the Noumea Accord will be held in just five months’ time.

Compared to the divided regional relations of the 1980s – an era of nuclear testing and the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior – France has improved relations with Forum Island Countries and forged strategic partnerships with Australia and New Zealand. Interesting times ahead for the new President, who will participate in his first Pacific Islands Forum in coming weeks.