Macron flies home from New Caledonia without breakthrough

President Macron: “The return to peace, calm and security is the top priority.”

Following ten days of riots and clashes between protestors and police in New Caledonia, French President Emmanuel Macron travelled to Noumea to meet with politicians, community leaders and business associations. 

After flying for 16,700 kilometres, he spent just 18 hours on the ground. Macron’s trip captured headlines around the world, but failed to achieve a breakthrough to restart stalled dialogue between supports and opponents of independence.

Stating that “the return to peace, calm and security is the top priority”, Macron hosted a roundtable at the French High Commission on 23 May, then a series of separate, bilateral meetings with key New Caledonian politicians. 

Alongside the presidents of New Caledonia’s Government, Congress and Provincial Assemblies and other mayors and politicians, twenty key business leaders were invited to Thursday morning’s roundtable, including the New Caledonia Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the employer federation MEDEF, bankers from BNP Paribas and Société Générale, as well as CEOs from other key sectors of the economy. Macron heard business concerns about the economic damage to jobs, investment and essential supplies, caused by nights of rioting and arson since 13 May. 

As he left for Paris, Macron pledged economic support from the French State: “The damage is being quantified. It is colossal. The priority will be emergency aid. In the coming days we will develop a solidarity fund for businesses.”

No breakthrough

Despite such pledges, his final press conference was long on rhetoric, but short on concrete commitments to resolve longstanding differences between supporters and opponents of independence. The next morning, a headline in local media read: “The Head of State will leave the territory after lengthy discussions, but with no real breakthrough.”

In his parting speech, Macron acknowledged the failure of the French government’s attempts to ram through controversial voting changes – a trigger for the recent riots. Back peddling from previous tough talk in Paris, he now said: “I am committed to ensuring that the proposed reform to ‘unfreeze’ the electorate will not pass through force, and that we will give ourselves a few weeks to start a resumption of dialogue.”

Despite this, he has not formally withdrawn the legislation, which has already passed the French Senate and National Assembly. Later this year, this law could still be sent to a joint sitting of both houses of parliament, known as the Congress of Versailles, to amend the French Constitution.

The limited announcement on electoral reform brought little comfort to FLNKS leaders like Roch Wamytan, who serves as president of the Congress of New Caledonia: “The question we are asking is will the constitutional revision text be withdrawn, to clear the way for in-depth discussions?”

The current French government bill could add 25,000 extra voters to electoral rolls for the three Provincial Assemblies and national Congress, a potential increase of 14.5% in the number of people re-defined as New Caledonian citizens. 

Many FLNKS leaders have accepted the need for electoral reforms (especially for locally-born citizens), but only as part of a comprehensive agreement that address longstanding demands. In March, FLNKS spokesperson Pascal Sawa said that talks with other political parties in 2022-23 had developed “many points of convergence, but the work is not finished and therefore the unfreezing of the electoral rolls must be part of a global agreement.”

Calling on all political leaders to rapidly agree on a new political statute to replace the 1998 Noumea Accord, Macron also suggested that “my wish is also that this agreement can be submitted to the vote of New Caledonians.” However he made no concrete commitment to a further referendum on self-determination as part of a negotiated agreement, which has been a central demand of FLNKS negotiators during recent talks.

The President’s flowery rhetoric on dialogue dodged the specific call from the FLNKS for “the establishment of a mediation mission led by a high-level dignitary, in order to guarantee the impartiality of the French State and to open a new phase of discussion.”

As part of his delegation, the French President was accompanied by three senior public servants – Remy Bastille, Eric Thiers and Frédéric Pottier – whom he named as a contact point to continue dialogue. However, despite past experience and knowledge of New Caledonia’s complex politics, the three French officials are hardly independent, working under the authority of the executive of the French State. 

In a statement last week, Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai, currently chair of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, stressed “there is an urgent need now for France to agree to the proposal by the FLNKS to establish a dialogue and mediation mission, to be led by a mutually agreed high personality, to discuss a way forward so that normalcy can be restored quickly and an enduring peace can prevail.”

A statement by the chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown, echoed the call for independent mediation. Brown noted “the Pacific Islands Forum stands ready to facilitate and provide a supported and neutral space for all parties to come together in the spirit of the Pacific Way, to find an agreed way forward that safeguards the interests of the people of New Caledonia.”


Many Kanak activists were dismissive of Macron’s flying visit, as he stressed “the priority is to restore Republican order.”

This tone-deaf language highlights a crucial problem. “Republican order” lies at the very heart of the New Caledonia crisis. Leaders across the political spectrum want an end to violent clashes, but significant numbers of New Caledonians, including the overwhelming majority of indigenous Kanak, do not want to remain in the French Republic.

Another source of the current impasse is that many FLNKS leaders have little trust in key government ministers, such as Overseas Minister Gérald Darmanin and Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu (a former Overseas Minister responsible for the 2021 referendum on self-determination). However at the High Commission this week, Macron was pointedly flanked by Darmanin on his right hand and Lecornu on his left.

Since the third referendum on self-determination under the Noumea Accord in December 2021, the French government has repeatedly taken partisan decisions that undercut its oft-repeated claim of impartiality. At first glance, this week’s visit has done little to address this problem.

In 2021, then Overseas Minister Lecornu made key decisions to proceed with the third referendum against the advice of Kanak political and customary leaders. Rushed through a year earlier than expected, in the midst of the COVID pandemic, independence supporters stayed away from the poll and turnout dropped to half the number of voters in previous polls. Last week, the Pacific Islands Forum quietly released a copy of the 2021 report of the Forum’s ministerial mission that observed this referendum, which was adopted and “welcomed” by leaders at the 2022 Forum summit in Suva. As Islands Business reported at the time, the report sharply questioned the poll’s legitimacy and credibility.

Lecornu was then promoted to Armed Forces Minister in a Cabinet reshuffle, leaving lasting wreckage and distrust. He was back in Noumea again last December, as France – for the first time – hosted the South Pacific Defence Minister’s Meeting. This gathering, denounced by the FLNKS, highlighted Australia’s support for France’s military agenda in the Indo-Pacific region (last year, both nations abstained on provisions of UN General Assembly decolonisation resolutions that called for an end to military activities in non-self-governing territories).

Many FLNKS leaders have also lost trust in Overseas Minister Darmanin, who has led talks over the last two years to develop a new political agreement. In March, Darmanin appeared to mislead parliament about FLNKS policy on electoral reform. In response, an FLNKS statement said they were “once again scandalised by the minister’s deceitful and manipulative behaviour.”

Last year, Macron also chose Sonia Backès, the President of New Caledonia’s Southern Province, as a junior minister for citizenship in the Borne government in Paris. This decision played poorly in Noumea, even angering supporters who said the Loyalist leader should focus on her day job! Backès later ran for the French Senate (yet another job), but resigned as minister after a humiliating defeat by Kanak politician Robert Xowie, who entered parliament as the first FLNKS member in the upper house.

In another partisan choice, Loyalist leader Nicolas Metzdorf was recently appointed as rapporteur for the electoral reform legislation being debated in the French National Assembly. Once again, this angered the FLNKS over perceived lack of impartiality, given Metzdorf – one of two New Caledonian deputies in the Assembly – is a fierce partisan of the French Republic. 

French President Macron welcomed at Tontouta airport in New Caledonia

Police repression

Every night last week, gendarmes, paramilitary police and CRS riot squads fought young Kanak activists on the streets. Dodging teargas, flash balls and occasional gunfire, protestors mobilised in the northern suburbs of Noumea and in neighbouring towns, despite an overnight curfew that was extended from the capital to the whole territory. 

French authorities were also concerned about clashes between civilians, as local residents gathered to protect houses and businesses against the rioters. Some of these “self-defence groups”, armed with baseball bats and golf clubs, soon morphed into anti-Kanak militias armed with hunting rifles. The first two civilians killed were two Kanak youth, shot dead by a civilian who was later arrested. Last week, French High Commissioner Le Franc acknowledged “there are armed militias that form to protect themselves. But the militias must also hear the call for calm.”

In response, the French government announced a state of emergency for New Caledonia (for only the second time in history, forty years after the violent conflict of the mid-1980s). Overseas Minister Darmanin – who also serves as France’s Interior Minister – then mobilised more reinforcements from Paris and Tahiti to assist the hard-pressed security forces, who failed to enforce nighttime curfews and a ban on carrying weapons.

During his press conference on Thursday night, Macron announced that “shortly, there will be 3,000 internal security forces. This is more than during the third referendum. These forces will stay as long as necessary, even during the Olympic and Paralympic Games” (which France will host between late July and early September).

With the prospect of police on the streets for weeks, if not months, the FLNKS Political Bureau warned “the French State about the nature and methods of any interventions by police, gendarmerie and army forces (present in large numbers in the country) that might be done outside any legal framework.”

Human rights groups in France have criticised the militarisation of the crisis, joined by Amnesty International which argued “the state of emergency declared by the French government and the deployment of the French army, coupled with a ban on the social media app TikTok, must not be misused to restrict people’s human rights.”

Despite these concerns, France’s highest administrative court the Conseil d’Etat has rejected applications from two human rights groups to end the French government’s ban on Tik Tok. The court ruled that a “temporary” block on access to the social media site in New Caledonia didn’t limit free speech.

Police bring order, not justice

FLNKS leaders joined the Government of New Caledonia and international organisations to call for an end to violence, noting that “after the week of extreme tension and violence in Kanaky-New Caledonia, the priority today for the FLNKS remains the return to calm, so that every New Caledonian can move freely, stock up on basic necessities and have access to the most basic public services.”

Following the shooting deaths of three Kanak during the riots, the FLNKS statement said that “at the level of the French State, no measure has ensured scrupulous compliance with the bans on the transport and carrying of weapons, announced by the High Commissioner of the Republic… The FLNKS will also ensure that everything is done to clarify the conditions under which young Kanaks may have been cowardly murdered with firearms in the streets of Nouméa. It’s precondition for the restoration of civil peace, from which the French State cannot escape.”

The flags of Kanaky that decorate ongoing roadblocks and protests highlight the ongoing quest in the French colony for an independent, sovereign nation. Last Wednesday’s statement from the Kanak independence movement suggests the focus on “Republican order” may exacerbate the crisis: “At this stage, the FLNKS believes that operations to restore public order undertaken by the French State cannot bring about a return to normalcy in the long term. This crisis can only be addressed by a political solution.”

Pacific island leaders should well understand this problem. During the 14-year Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), the ‘Law and Justice’ sector absorbed an estimated 83 per cent (A$2.2 billion) of total expenditure. Churches, women’s groups and customary leaders called for better distribution of the resources allocated to officers in RAMSI’s Participating Police Force, arguing that the community sector played a vital but underfunded role in promoting local harmony, disarmament and reconciliation. 

Will French authorities learn the lesson from Pacific neighbours, that governments and donors must not simply focus on law and order, but address the poverty of urban life? Across the region, riots in urban centres show that young people are desperate for better access to jobs, housing, health and education services, and better public transport. 

Division amongst politicians

Despite Macron’s flying visit, that political solution still seems out of reach.

The French President met a delegation of independence leaders on Thursday afternoon, including key FLNKS negotiators Roch Wamytan and Victor Tutugoro, and representatives of other independence forces such as CCAT leader Christian Tein, who has been targeted as an instigator of the riots. Macron then met with the three anti-independence groups: Les Loyalistes (led by Sonia Backès), Calédonie ensemble (Philippe Gomès) and Rassemblement (Alcide Ponga). However in an embarrassing display of disunity, Calédonie ensemble and Les Loyalistes refused to meet the President together at the same time! 

The following day, Calédonie ensemble president Gomès launched an astounding Facebook attack on Loyalist leaders like Sonia Backès and Nicolas Metzdorf: “As for the Loyalist ayatollahs who demand that the date for the Congress [of Versailles] be maintained – even as they are protected by GIGN [police] officers or have a police van in front of their house to protect them – we suggest they go to Logicoop, Ducos, Rivière Salée, Kaméré, Dumbéa or elsewhere to experience the daily life of a large part of the population of the city.”  

Gomès’ comments highlight the economic and social gulf between many Loyalists who live in the wealthy southern suburbs of the capital, and working people from industrial and working-class suburbs in greater Noumea (Ducos, Rivière Salée, Kaméré and Dumbéa bore the brunt of the rioting and arson over the last two weeks).

All three anti-independence groups want New Caledonia to remain within the French Republic, but it seems they have significant divisions over the way forward, as well on domestic policy around taxation, welfare services and the powers of New Caledonia’s three provinces.

Over the years, the FLNKS has also seen internal debates between its largest parties Union Calédonienne (UC) and the Parti de Libération Kanak (Palika). But in recent months, the Kanak nationalist movement has united behind a series of peaceful protests, culminating in a  rally of more than 30,000 people on 13 April (a massive turnout in a country of only 270,000 people). 

This independence mobilisation will continue as the crisis extends. Despite this, some protestors despair that international attention has been drawn to Kanak claims only by the violence, not the massive peaceful gatherings in April – the largest demonstrations in decades. 

As one Kanak protestor told journalists from The Pacific: “Violence, we must do it another way. But if you have to make noise, then sometimes that’s what you’ve got to do. Because those who face us, they are deaf to us. We have been peacefully protesting for a while, and they’ve never heard us this whole time.”