A message to Macron: “You can’t negotiate with a gun to your head”

USTKE president, Mélanie Atapo: “You can’t negotiate with a gun to your head” (Photo: Nic Maclellan)

Political, church and community leaders from New Caledonia have called on French President Emmanuel Macron to fully withdraw a controversial constitutional amendment on voting rights – the trigger for recent riots and armed clashes in the French Pacific dependency.

For trade union leader Mélanie Atapo, “prior to any participation in a dialogue mission and any discussion, the independence movement must demand the immediate withdrawal of the constitutional reform project relating to the ‘unfreezing’ of the electoral rolls. Without withdrawal, no dialogue.

”Atapo is president of the Union Syndicale des Travailleurs Kanak et Exploitées (USTKE). In a statement on behalf of the pro-independence union confederation, she doesn’t mince words: “You can’t negotiate with a gun to your head.”

“As could be expected, Macron’s trip to Kanaky did not lead to any concrete progress,” she said. “The arsonist of the Elysée [presidential palace] limited himself to repeating that ‘there will be no going back.’ Everyone will have been able to measure the duplicity of this man in dire straits, who constantly uses doublespeak and who clearly takes his interlocutors for imbeciles.”

This angry response from Kanak independence activists is matched – albeit in more diplomatic language – by a range of other New Caledonian leaders. President Macron must act soon, or the crisis that has destroyed jobs, livelihoods and community harmony will only get worse.

Presidential ambiguity

During his flying visit to New Caledonia on 23 May, President Macron announced that he would delay the convening of a joint sitting of both houses of the French parliament. This meeting, to be held at the Versailles palace on the outskirts of Paris, is required to ratify the government’s current legislation, which aims to change the French Constitution and expand the number of voters for New Caledonia’s three provincial assemblies and Congress.

As Islands Business reported last month, President Macron used his parting speech at the French High Commission to pledge: “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 commitment, however, he has not formally announced an end to the legislative process. The proposed constitutional amendment on voting rights was adopted by the French Senate on 2 April, and the French National Assembly on 14 May. The final step requires ratification by a 3/5 majority of both houses of parliament at a joint meeting, known as the Congress of Versailles.

Beyond this, Macron used an interview in the newspaper Le Parisien to suggest that the controversial legislation could instead be endorsed by a referendum of all French voters. This has angered independence supporters in New Caledonia, as well as opposition politicians in Paris. The idea that all voters in France should decide whether more French nationals should vote in local New Caledonian elections has added fuel to the fire. Tone-deaf or deliberate provocation, this suggestion has exacerbated the lack of trust in the French government amongst independence supporters.

The Political Bureau of the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) – New Caledonia’s main independence coalition – has written to a dialogue team appointed by President Macron, warning that his ambiguity on the legislation is not helping efforts to end clashes between protestors and police: “This statement, unfortunately, remains misunderstood at the grassroots, to the extent that it does not guarantee, in any way, the abandonment of the contentious constitutional reform.”

They argue the threat of a joint sitting remains on the table, so “the FLNKS asks that the President of the Republic be explicit in his remarks, clearly stating that he will not convene the Congress of Versailles, thereby abandoning this constitutional reform.”

Do not be afraid to step back

Alongside Kanak politicians, a range of church, community and customary leaders have also called on President Macron to step back from the brink.

An open letter from leading Kanak theologian Pastor Höcë Léonard Var Kaemo, beseeches the French President to halt the constitutional amendment process: “If anyone should help us roll away the tombstone, which currently prevents all possible resurrections, it is indeed you, Monsieur le Président de la République. Do not be afraid to step back from this legislative process that you have initiated, which has created fear, resistance and despair for the children of God in Kanaky New Caledonia.”

Pastor Kaemo is president of the Église Protestante de Kanaky Nouvelle-Calédonie (EPKNC), the main Protestant denomination in the French Pacific colony. His letter requests that President Macron “officially announce the end of the constitutional process on ‘unfreezing’ the electoral body, to no longer present it to the Congress of Versailles, and to continue the decolonisation project initiated by the Noumea Accord.”

During his recent visit, Macron avoided clarity on the fate of the electoral reform, trying to placate both supporters and opponents of independence. However, it seems he has pleased neither, and even some anti-independence politicians have joined the call to withdraw the law.

This week, the president of the anti-independence party Calédonie ensemble (CE), called for peace and dialogue, but also the withdrawal of the controversial French legislation. CE leader Philippe Gomès posed three immediate objectives: “The process relating to the constitutional bill must be definitively interrupted; order and peace must be restored; and dialogue between the partners of the Noumea Accord must be restored, to reach consensus on a comprehensive agreement.”

Ironically, CE’s Philippe Dunoyer – one of two New Caledonian deputies in the French National Assembly – voted in favour of the electoral reform legislation on 13 May. But now, after weeks of rioting and armed clashes between protestors and police, Dunoyer joined party leader Gomès at a press conference to call for the unambiguous withdrawal of the law.

Addressing President Macron, the anti-independence party said: “It is simply a question of officially announcing the end of the process concerning the constitutional reform for ‘unfreezing’ the electoral body. This is a legal and political fact. This would offer our country a new chance to return to order.”

Gomès, who served as President of New Caledonia in 2009-2011, now says the French President must act decisively to calm ongoing tensions: “As everyone knows, there is no majority to adopt this text in a joint sitting of parliament meeting as the Congress [of Versailles], and the President of the Republic has ruled out ‘any passage by force’, including recourse to a possible national referendum. However, ambiguities remain – exploited by some – which halts demobilisation on the ground and limits the renewal of dialogue. It’s time to end this ambiguity.”

This stand by Calédonie ensemble may not be welcomed by leaders of other anti-independence parties. Gomès’ recent description of Right-wing politicians like Sonia Backès and Nicolas Metzdorf as “Loyalist ayatollahs” has not won him many friends. Despite their common agenda of staying within the French Republic, it seems that the conservative parties are divided over the best way to address the crisis (and prepare for the next local elections, scheduled for late 2024).

Re-starting dialogue

As he met political and business leaders at the French High Commission during his brief visit on 23 May, President Macron was accompanied by three senior public servants, Remi Bastille, Eric Thiers and Frédéric Pottier. These experienced technocrats were designated as the contact point to continue dialogue with New Caledonian leaders, as Marcon flew out after just 18 hours on the ground.

However, a 5 June media release from Union Calédonienne – the largest independence party in the FLNKS – said bluntly they would not meet with the French officials while thousands of French police continue to clash with protestors: “UC leaders do not wish to meet the dialogue mission present in Kanaky under these conditions….Union Calédonienne denounces the police and military repression that has persisted without any restraint, even after the lifting of the State of Emergency.”

Recalling the large protest rallies in the months leading up to the current explosion, UC leaders said: “Despite our peaceful mobilisations, the Macron State and its local clones have not grasped our message, which remains the same: ‘the withdrawal of the constitutional bill on the modification of the electorate’.”

Some FLNKS politicians were angered by the mixed messages during Macron’s recent visit. Though he preached dialogue and calm, the French President pointedly sat next to Overseas Minister Gérald Darmanin and Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu. These two ambitious politicians – encouraged by so-called Loyalist leaders – were responsible for key decisions since 2021 that led directly to this crisis. FLNKS representatives held closed door talks with the French President that afternoon but had refused to meet Macron if the two ministers were in the room.

This breakdown of trust extends to the French State’s representative in Noumea, High Commissioner Louis Le Franc. The USTKE has requested “that the current High Commissioner be relieved of his duties and replaced by a person who is up to the situation.”

As New Caledonian citizens try to cope with the economic damage and social polarisation after nights of rioting, the FLNKS has again called for an independent, impartial mission to facilitate new talks. That call is joined by other political, customary and church leaders – in both France and New Caledonia who continue to press Macron to send a high-level delegation to help bridge the gulf between supporters and opponents of independence.

This call has been echoed by church and civil society groups around the region. A statement on 5 June from Pacific regional NGOs and churches – endorsed by indigenous, community and women’s organisations in eight countries – says: “Macron must heed the call for an Eminent Persons Group to ensure the current crisis is resolved peacefully and impartiality is restored to the decolonisation process for the occupied territory….the pace and pathway for an amicable resolution of Kanaky-New Caledonia’s decolonisation challenge cannot, and must not, continue to be dictated in Paris.”

The USTKE trade union has also called for high level interlocuters, such as former French Prime Ministers who have successfully resolved previous crises: “We want French personalities with the stature of statesmen, such as Edouard Philippe, Lionel Jospin or Dominique de Villepin, or those with proven knowledge of the problems of New Caledonia.”

But for more radical independence supporters – and the youth who still maintain barricades and roadblocks around the islands – there can be no retreat. USTKE’s Mélanie Atapo bluntly notes that “everything is negotiable, except independence.”

“In any negotiations”, she stressed, “it is out of the question to once again endorse a remake of the retrograde agreements that have only perpetuated the colonial system. Today, we can measure the disastrous results of these, through the revolt of Kanak youth.”