Clashes between pro-independence protesters, police as three French ministers visit New Caledonia

Militants and protesters clashed with police in downtown Nouméa on Wednesday as New Caledonia plays host to three French government ministers this week. 

The crowd – an estimated 2,000 according to organisers, 500 according to police – had been called to voice their opposition to a French-planned constitutional amendment process which would include the modification of New Caledonia’s electoral roll for local elections. 

As the three French ministers were on official calls in various places, in downtown Nouméa, police had to fire teargas to disperse the crowd. 

Five policemen were reported to have been injured at various levels, including one seriously hit by rocks, the French High Commission stated, adding five protesters were arrested shortly afterwards. 

The protest had been called and organised by Union Calédonienne’s self-styled “field action coordinating cell” (Cellule de Coordination des actions de terrain, CCAT), which consists of hard-line trade union USTKE and UC’s close ally, the Labour party. 

Later on Wednesday, the crowd was dispersed and allowed to move out of downtown Nouméa. 

“It’s completely out of the question to ‘unfreeze’ the electoral roll” UC president Daniel Goa, who was part of the word, told local media. 

“This kind of call to hatred, directly from UC…must stop. Violent protests will not halt the electoral roll being ‘unfrozen’”, pro-France politician Nicolas Metzdorf said in a statement. 

French Home Affairs and Overseas Gérald Darmanin, who is now regarded as a regular visitor, arrived on Tuesday and this time is flanked with his newly appointed “delegate” minister for Overseas, Marie Guévenoux, as well as French Justice minister Eric Dupond-Moretti. 

This is Darmanin’s sixth visit to New Caledonia over the past 12 months. 

In a relatively polarised context, numerous attempts by Darmanin to bring all parties around the same table in order to all agree on a forward-looking agreement have so far failed. 

His previous visits were focused on attempting to bring about inclusive talks concerning New Caledonia’s political future which could materialise through an amendment to the French Constitution. 

The amendment contains sensitive issues, including a revision of New Caledonia’s list of eligible voters at local elections, with a ten-year minimum residency period for any French citizen to be allowed to cast their vote. 

While the two main components of FLNKS (UC and PALIKA -Kanak Liberation Party-) have at the weekend held separate meetings and announced diverging approaches vis-à-vis France’s proposed reforms, the pro-independence umbrella FLNKS has now re-is scheduled its Congress on 23 March. 

Even though most local parties in New Caledonia have started to exchange views on the sensitive subject, one of the main components of the pro-independence front, the FLNKS, namely the Union Calédonienne (UC), has so far refused to take part in the inclusive, bipartisan round tables. 

After convening UC’s steering committee in Houaïlou, UC Vice-president Gilbert Tyuienon earlier this week told a press conference it intended once again to hold a series of actions, through its recently revived “field action coordinating cell” (Cellule de Coordination des actions de terrain, CCAT). 

“We have asked (the CCAT) and its young members to take all steps on the field”, he said. 

The thinly veiled threat materialised on Wednesday with CCAT militants, including members of the Labour Party and hard-line union USTKE, deploying banners opposing the planned Constitution review being placed in the capital Nouméa, also sometimes roadside burning tyres in the suburban city of Mont-Dore. 

Tyuienon also claimed that it considered French-promoted political talks were “a failure”” and labelled Darmanin’s travel to New Caledonia as “yet another provocation” and that the proposed text is potentially “destabilising (New Caledonia’s (political) balances”. 

“There is a formal opposition from UC to meet the ministers…we know who is responsible for this situation”, Tyuienon told reporters. 

He said UC now demands that the whole French Constitutional amendment project be scrapped altogether “or else we’re heading for big trouble”. 

PALIKA, after its own meeting at the weekend, expressed more nuanced views: “We are involved in every dialogue venue regarding all the documents drafts that have been put on the table,” spokesman Jean-Pierre Djaïwe told a press conference on Monday, following its extraordinary general assembly in Canala. 

“We can only regret that every time we are taking part in discussions, not all of New Caledonia’s political groups are represented. Because our objective, from PALIKA’s point of view, is to reach an agreement comprising all political parties” he said. 

Djaïwe however said the current draft document “sided too much in favour of the (pro-French) parties”, which could 2be detrimental to the conclusion of an agreement between local players”. 

He indicated that PALIKA’s current stance would remain valid at least until “end of March” (when the FLNKS Congress takes place) and “after that, it will decide on its strategy”. 

Over the past months, PALIKA and other components of the pro-independence umbrella have consistently advised their members not to take part in UC’s CCAT-organised actions and protests. 

However, this time, Darmanin has already indicated that he didn’t intend to touch New Caledonia’s institutional and political future topics as he said he wanted “the neutral and impartial (French) State to only talk with local political parties once they have reached an agreement”. 

His schedule did not seem to include New Caledonia’s nickel industry crisis either, following the announcement last week that one of its three major companies, in Koniambo (KNS), will now be placed under “care and maintenance” mode (effectively mothballed by its major Anglo-Swiss financier Glencore. 

New Caledonia is still reeling from the shock of a major setback for its troubled nickel industry: a major shareholder for its Northern Province Koniambo nickel (KNS) mine, Anglo-Swiss giant Glencore, earlier this week confirmed it will withdraw after a six-month “transition” period, leaving over 1200 workers and another 600 sub-contractors. 

Glencore (which owns 49 percent in Koniambo’s stock), justified its move saying this operation, over the past ten years, had never been neither profitable nor sustainable and had accumulated losses to the tune of a staggering 14 billion Euros. 

Instead, this time, Darmanin’s official agenda includes visits to sites affected by climate change and coastal erosion as well as announcements regarding the reinforcement of road safety (with the introduction of new latest-generation speed radars thanks to a 200,000 Euro grant, to reduce the high number of road accidents and fatalities in New Caledonia. 

On his part, Justice Minister Dupond-Moretti said his visit was focused on meeting the local judiciary and bar, but also New Caledonia’s custom and traditional justice players. 

He is also to officially open a new detention centre in Koné and provide more details regarding the construction of a 500-Million-Euro new jailhouse, in the suburbs of the capital Nouméa, which is to replace the overpopulated, ageing “Camp-Est” prison, where living conditions for inmates have frequently been denounced by human rights organisations. 

After his stay in New Caledonia (21-22 February), Darmanin’s Pacific trip is also to include this time a stopover in Australia later this week (23-24 February), where he is expected to meet cabinet ministers to talk about Pacific “regional cooperation” between the two countries, as well as matters related to this year’s Olympic Games in France.