FLNKS congress postponed, as independence movement debates the way forward

Roch Wamytan (Photo: Nic Maclellan)

In a fast moving and complex situation, both supporters and opponents of independence in New Caledonia are preparing for the outcome of French elections later this month.

Islands Business correspondent Nic Maclellan provides this comprehensive, special report on what this means for the conflict in New Caledonia.

Within hours of his defeat in recent European Parliament elections, President Emmanuel Macron dissolved the French National Assembly in Paris, calling new elections that will be held over two rounds on 30 June and 7 July.

For the people of New Caledonia, battered by weeks of rioting and clashes between protesters and police, Macron’s political gamble has generated new uncertainties. It will be weeks before a new Prime Minister can be appointed in Paris. Even then, supporters and opponents of independence cannot guarantee that a new French government will act promptly to address the economic and social damage of the crisis that erupted on 13 May.

Political parties in New Caledonia have now rushed to nominate candidates for the territory’s two seats in the National Assembly. But with less than a fortnight until polling day, the snap election is exacerbating longstanding tensions within the independence movement, and also widening fractures between anti-independence parties that want New Caledonia to remain within the French Republic.

A special congress of the main independence coalition Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) was scheduled to be held last Saturday, but was postponed because of differences within its membership over the way forward.

Meanwhile, a young generation of New Caledonians are watching as the crisis unfold, refusing to back down from their protests despite the deployment of more than 3,700 police and military forces across the islands.

Electoral tensions

President Macron’s decision to call snap elections for the lower house of parliament in Paris may backfire. Opinion polls indicate that his Renaissance party may suffer a significant defeat, squeezed between the strong mobilisation of the extreme-Right Rassemblement national (RN) and a Left alliance called the New Popular Front (the French Socialist and Communist parties, the Greens, and La France Insoumise, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon).

After weeks of riots in New Caledonia, the level of conflict has lessened after the death of nine people, with hundreds more injured amidst massive property damage. However business confidence is shattered, with an estimated 7,000 people losing jobs and many businesses closed. There are still limited food supplies and petrol in some areas and people are living under an overnight curfew, as police try to enforce restrictions on public gatherings. With thousands of police on the streets, and ongoing operations to remove protest roadblocks, there is some uncertainty about how the French elections might proceed.

Despite this, the major parties have nominated candidates for New Caledonia’s two seats in the National Assembly. Amongst opponents of independence, the poll pits the Calédonie ensemble (CE) party against an electoral alliance uniting two more conservative groups: Les Loyalistes (led by Sonia Backès and Nicolas Metzdorf) and Rassemblement-Les Républicains (led by Alcide Ponga and Virginie Ruffenach).

Outgoing CE deputy Philippe Dunoyer has announced he’ll run again for New Caledonia’s first constituency, which covers the capital Noumea and the outlying Loyalty Islands. The second constituency, covering the rest of the main island of Grande Terre, is currently held by The Loyalists’ Nicolas Metzdorf. However Metzdorf has announced that he’ll compete against Dunoyer in the capital Noumea, rather than his traditional fiefdom in the bush. The anti-independence party Rassemblement has named its president Alcide Ponga as a candidate for the territory’s second constituency (but won’t run a candidate in the first constituency, calling on their supporters to back Metzdorf). CE’s Gerard Poadja, a former French Senator, will run in the north against Ponga.

The decision to defer last Saturday’s FLNKS Congress means that the main independence coalition could not agree on joint candidates.

In New Caledonia’s Congress, the Parti de Libération Kanak (Palika) and Union progressiste en Mélanésie (UPM) form the parliamentary group Union nationale pour l’indépendance (UNI). At provincial elections, UNI competes with the UC-FLNKS et Nationalistes group, which unites the largest independence party Union Calédonienne (UC) and other pro-independence parties inside and outside the FLNKS.

UPM President Victor Tutugoro, one of the key FLNKS negotiators in recent talks with France, told Islands Business that UNI would not stand candidates for the French elections.

“Given the short time available, it will be complicated to put forward candidates,” Tutugoro said. “A key reason is the suffering today in the Kanak world, especially because of the deuil [mourning tradition]. There have been nine deaths so far, including seven young Kanak. So there’s a real sadness amongst people about the tragic death of these young people. People are also suffering because they lost their job, or seen the destruction of their house or car.”

“Because of all this, it will be very difficult to mount an electoral campaign,” he said. “It’s a similar situation to what we went through a few years ago with the 2021 referendum, when it was practically impossible to campaign during the COVID pandemic. There are cultural protocols that have to be gone through, and that draws people away from electoral issues.”

Victor Tutugoro
Victor Tutugoro

In contrast, Union Calédonienne nominated two candidates at the last minute on Sunday night: Omayra Naisseline for the first constituency and Emmanuel Tjibaou for the second (a son of the late Jean-Marie Tjibaou, the founding president of the FLNKS).

A range of smaller groups have also nominated candidates across both constituencies, including the Wallisian party Eveil océanien and the MNIS. Veteran Kanak politician Simon Loueckhote, a former French Senator, will now stand for the Rassemblement national (the conservative leader lost his power base in the Loyalty Islands more than a decade ago, but has bounced from party to party seeking to retain a role in political affairs).

Because voting is not compulsory in France, there’s a lot of uncertainty about how many people will mobilise for the poll. If no one gains a majority in the first round of voting on 30 June, there must be a runoff between the top two candidates in each constituency a week later.

FLNKS debates way forward

For independence leaders, the direction remains the same – seeking a pathway towards an independent and sovereign state.

Speaking before Saturday’s FLNKS Congress, UC President Daniel Goa said: “Our youth revolted so that Kanaky could emerge and live, so our sovereignty could become a reality. They did so in memory of our elders, who paid a heavy price for colonialism and policies that we denounce.”

“We all knew the crisis was going to happen sooner or later,” said Goa, “because in addition to the political conflict, a social conflict arose. This was difficult to control, because other frustrations were expressed. But what happened was not a coincidence…we had warned them, drawing everyone’s attention to the fact they should not touch a fundamental political agreement for the Kanak people and for our recognition.”

The current crisis has raised tensions amongst members of the FLNKS about the best strategy to respond to a fast-moving situation. The leadership of the four members of the independence coalition is also under pressure from a range of pro-independence parties, networks and trade unions outside the formal FLNKS structure. This includes activists mobilised in recent weeks by the Cellule de coordination des actions de terrain (CCAT – Coordination Unit for Actions on the Ground).

CCAT activists met at Azareu tribe near the west coast town of Bourail last Wednesday and Thursday, issuing a statement that showed no willingness to retreat. They called for “the liberation of our political prisoners” and the departure of French High Commissioner Louis Le Franc and Public Prosecutor Yves Dupas, and rejected the French government’s current proposal on the future of the nickel industry. The CCAT statement “affirms that full and complete independence is the next step, without conditions, and that no more concessions must be made.”

UC activist Johanito Wamytan, part of a younger generation of independence leaders, told Islands Business that many young people were angered by the call from French ministers for a return to “Republican order” – the very social order that has left them marginalised: “Our youth are not scared and they refuse to bow down to police.”

UPM’s Victor Tutugoro notes that many young protestors were born after the signing of the 1998 Noumea Accord, and their anger is driven by startling social inequality, especially in the capital Noumea and surrounding towns in the Southern Province. The rate of unemployment is twice as high for Kanak as non-Kanak, and indigenous people make up more than 90% of the prison population (with numbers to swell after more than 1,200 arrests of rioters and protestors). Despite major progress in education and training under the Noumea Accord, young Kanak and other islanders still face unequal access to housing, transport and dignity, as they compete for jobs with the children of French public servants and soldiers.

“It’s also worth saying that these people are not just Kanak,” Victor Tutugoro told Islands Business. “In Noumea, you’ve seen a lot of young people protesting who aren’t Kanak, but live in the same poverty. You can see this in the events that just happened, such as the looting of shops: it wasn’t just Kanak! There were Kanak, Wallisians, petit blancs [poor whites]. You can see this in every social crisis around the world: people who are pushed the margins of society are amongst the first to revolt. So alongside our political demands, there are many social issues to be addressed, issues that underlie the crisis that has erupted.”

This revolt has challenged the older leadership of the FLNKS, who have been campaigning for independence since the late 1970s. Tutugoro noted that government, customary and community leaders across the political spectrum had called for calm and dialogue, “but many did not listen to them. In some places, people acted to remove their barricades, but overall it hasn’t happened.”

“For some young people, there’s a level of defiance towards the historical leadership,” Tutugoro said. “In other cases, people are much more radical because of the social conditions they’ve lived under for far too long, especially in the outer suburbs of greater Noumea. There are many people who haven’t been integrated into the society and who live on the margins. These are the people who have risen up and these are the people that you find on the barricades today.”

Opening the FLNKS

One issue dividing UNI and UC-FLNKS is whether to open the membership of the FLNKS coalition to other parties and organisations, including pro-independence trade unions and churches. Union Calédonienne has long argued for a broader, united coalition, including the Parti Travailliste and USTKE trade union confederation. For many years, Palika and UPM have resisted this call.

“It complicated,” UPM’s Tutugoro told Islands Business. “It’s easy to come together against something or someone, but much harder to unite around a common programme. So UNI remains opposed to opening up the FLNKS to other forces.”

“A stumbling block is that there are two strategies being debated,” he said. “One is proposed by UNI, which is to head towards a negotiated solution. There is an alternative view, which you can clearly see since 13 May, which proposes a rupture with the system. This rupture was the very strategy developed by the FLNKS in 1984. But everything we went through in 1984-88 led Jean-Marie Tjibaou to shake hands with Jacques Lafleur in 1988, in a change of strategy. That set us on the path to where we are today. However since 13 May, the strategic dilemma is clear: some of us want to keep talking, others don’t.”

These differences crystallised at the FLNKS congress over the weekend. As current co-ordinator of the FLNKS Political Bureau (a post which rotates around the four members), Palika moved to restrict the number of participants at the congress, for reasons of security and logistics. But hundreds of people, including large delegations from UC and CCAT, arrived at the conference venue in the tribe of Netchaot, outside Koohne, the provincial capital of the Northern Province.

Some activists, angered by the presence of French police at the site, were in no mood for compromise. There were hurried consultations between FLNKS leaders and local customary elders, who had prepared to welcome delegates from around the country. Leaders of Union Calédonienne then said they could not proceed with the meeting, which was postponed to an undetermined date.

In July, the Rassemblement Démocratique Océanien (RDO) will assume co-ordination of the FLNKS Political Bureau, and the issue of membership will resurface when an FLNKS Congress is reconvened after the French elections.

International outreach

UC President Daniel Goa sheets home the blame for the current crisis to President Macron.

“The political situation in the country is in a total impasse,” Goa told his party. “Whose fault is this? Meddling with the electoral rolls was a manifest and predictable error. President Macron committed it, he was perfectly aware of it and was poorly advised by his two local acolytes [Loyalist leaders Backès and Metzdorf]. It’s a failure, his failure.”

For Goa, there is no turning back on the goal of an independent and sovereign state, even though UC proposes a transitional period in partnership with Paris.

“Our sovereignty must be irreversible, guaranteed and validated by the C24 [UN Special Committee on Decolonisation]” Goa said. “We will be able to add a transition period for the political withdrawal of the French State and the timetable for the return of sovereign powers [defence, police and courts, currency, foreign policy]. Sovereignty will then be shared if France accepts it. It will be full and complete under the terms of this transition period on 24 September 2029, on the anniversary of 176 years of colonisation.”

Roch Wamytan is a veteran Kanak politician and member of Union Calédonienne. One of the original signatories to the 1998 Noumea Accord, he serves today as President of the Congress of New Caledonia. During President Macron’s flying visit to Noumea on 23 May, Wamytan and other FLNKS representatives met the French President in a closed session, accompanied by Christian Tein of the CCAT. They urged Macron to withdraw the contentious constitutional amendment on electoral laws, as a gesture towards calming the situation (he later announced the suspension, but not withdrawal, of the law)

Wamytan told Islands Business there was also a need for new interlocutors to break the impasse in talks about a future political status: “What we asked the President was to send a mission that is both impartial and independent of both political families here: the independence movement and the opponents of independence. We’ve had positive indications from personalities in France, such as [former Prime Minister] Edouard Philippe or the speakers of the two houses of parliament, Mr Larcher from the Senate and Mme. Braun-Pivet [of the National Assembly].”

The Kanak politician also said that any mission should include other technical experts and representatives of regional organisations.

“We also want experts from the United Nations, who are well versed in conflict solution and peacebuilding,” he said. “We’d also welcome involvement from personalities from the Pacific Islands Forum and the Melanesian Spearhead Group, two regional organisations that New Caledonia is involved in. However Macron did not accept our proposal, appointing three officials instead. They came for a fortnight, then left. We didn’t meet them, as it wasn’t worth the effort, as they are not independent.”

In the lead up to the next Pacific Islands Forum, the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) will meet in Fiji, to discuss the current crisis with FLNKS representatives. Under current MSG Chair Charlot Salwai, Prime Minister of Vanuatu, the sub-regional organisation will likely carry forward strong proposals to the annual Forum summit, which will be held in the Kingdom of Tonga in the last week of August.

At the Forum leaders retreat, New Caledonia will be represented by President Louis Mapou – a member of Palika and the first pro-independence Kanak politician to lead the country in forty years. He will be looking for regional support, both for economic reconstruction and to help mediate the fractures of the last month.

A Forum debate over decolonisation poses problems for the Albanese government in Australia, which has a strategic partnership with France (reconfirmed last December with the signing of a new Australia-France Road Map). Around the region, however, many citizens have sharply condemned French colonialism and pledged solidarity with New Caledonia. This was highlighted last week at the Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture in Hawai’i: the delegation from Guam carried a Kanaky flag into the opening ceremony, and people gathered at the empty fale set aside for the absent New Caledonian delegation, sharing kava and storying about the plight of indigenous Kanak.

There have been numerous statements of solidarity from the Pacific Conference of Churches, regional non-government organisations and women’s organisations, calling on Forum leaders to take stronger action on decolonisation at this year’s summit. The explosion in New Caledonia has sent warning signals to Forum members that are willing to press partners like France and Indonesia about human rights, but not self-determination and decolonisation. However these issues clearly remain on the regional agenda, as people in Bougainville, West Papua, Guahan and Mā`ohi Nui watch the unfolding crisis of French colonialism.

Before the Forum, however, the outcome of the French elections will fundamentally alter the pathway forward, for both supporters and opponents of independence. President Macron’s Renaissance party already lost its majority in the French legislature in June 2022 elections. The loss of further government seats may open the way for Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement national to gain a majority in the National Assembly, and even the Prime ministership. At that point, France’s international standing – and its role as a colonial power in the Pacific – will be transformed.

Victor Tutugoro notes that “we’ll have to await the election outcome, because there is no clear political majority. We don’t know whether President Macron will even have a majority. But as we have been told the United Nations over many years, you have to talk to your administering power to create a pathway to independence. Depending on the colour of the next French government, everyone may have to shuffle their cards. But whatever happens, we have to prepare for negotiations.”

Roch Wamytan says there are still contacts with anti-independence members of Congress, but things remain “frosty” with some Loyalist leaders. For President Macron, Overseas Minister Darmanin and Armed Forces Minister Lecornu, things are “very complicated, and they have a lot on their plate. President Macron has more to worry about at home than here.” Wamytan suggests that further official talks “may have to wait until the elections on 7 July, or even well after that, when we find out who our next interlocutor will be in the National Assembly. We’ll have to wait at least a month to see what happens in Paris.” For the people of New Caledonia, reeling from the economic and social crisis, the coming weeks will see a turning point in their relations with France and their neighbours in the South Pacific. But there’s still a way to go, and plenty of potential flashpoints that could – once again – plunge Noumea into crisis.