New Caledonia reels as President Macron dissolves French parliament

Despite weeks of rioting and clashes between police and protestors in New Caledonia, French authorities in Noumea decided to proceed with elections for the European Parliament on Sunday, a poll open to all French nationals living in the Pacific dependency.

For most New Caledonians, especially indigenous Kanak and other supporters of independence, there was little reason to vote for a parliament on the other side of the globe. Most people ignored the elections, with only 13.35% of registered voters in New Caledonia casting a ballot for the European legislature.

However, the overall results from voters in France were a stinging rebuke to President Macron. Large numbers turned towards extreme-Right parties, including Rassemblement national (RN) led by Marine Le Pen. In provisional results from Sunday’s elections, RN won 31.5% of French voters, more than double the 14.6% for Macron’s ‘Besoin Europe’ list (an electoral alliance made up of the president’s Renaissance party and four other smaller allies).

After this significant setback in Sunday’s elections, President Macron announced he had dissolved the French National Assembly in Paris (the lower house of the French parliament). He then announced that new National Assembly elections would be held over two rounds on 30 June and 7 July.

For the people of New Caledonia, it is yet another stunning turnaround after a month of crisis and conflict, as they try to recover from riots that have left an estimated 7,000 people without jobs and the local economy in shambles.

After a fortnight of clashes between police and protestors, President Macron made a flying visit to Noumea on 23 May. While capturing the headlines, he did not resolve fundamental differences between supporters and opponents of independence. In Noumea, Macron pledged to delay – though not fully withdraw – a controversial constitutional amendment on voting rights until 30 June. However, this tight deadline for political dialogue has now been blown out of the water by the latest developments in Europe.

Complications for New Caledonia

For the government and people of New Caledonia, there will be weeks of uncertainty about who will lead the new French government. Prime Minister Gabriel Attal and current ministers will act in caretaker mode until the results of the National Assembly election are clear in the second week of July, followed by the appointment of a new Prime Minister and then his or her Cabinet.

A spokesperson for the Office of President Louis Mapou in Noumea told Islands Business that they had not yet been officially consulted by the French government, to discuss what will happen in coming weeks around economic, social, and political damage from the riots. There is also uncertainty about what will happen to New Caledonia’s provincial assembly and Congressional elections, originally scheduled for May, but delayed by the outgoing National Assembly until an undetermined date before 15 December. Given the chaos in Paris, the elections may now be pushed into next year, if agreement can be forged on Noumea.

On Monday, France’s High Commissioner in Noumea Louis Le Franc announced: “The curfew between 6pm and 6am will remain in effect until at least Monday 17 June, throughout the country. Public gatherings, the sale and transport of weapons as well as the sale of alcohol also remain prohibited.”

The decision to once again extend the night time curfew and other restrictions undercuts official assurances that police operations have ended the disturbances that have wracked Noumea and surrounding towns. As of 9 June, the High Commission has confirmed eight deaths; 212 police and gendarmes wounded; countless civilian injuries; more than 1,000 people arrested or charged; and the repatriation of more than 2,700 French and foreign tourists and visitors, flown out by military aircraft (as of this update, the main international airport at Tontouta is still closed to civilian aircraft).

Beyond this, the new elections in France have crucial implications for stability in the French Pacific colonies, and for French diplomacy in the wider region. Until a new Prime Minister and Cabinet are appointed in mid-July after the National Assembly elections, getting timely decisions and firm commitments from Paris will be difficult.

Philippe Dunoyer of the Calédonie ensemble party holds one of two New Caledonian seats in the French National Assembly in Paris (the other deputy is Nicolas Metzdorf of the anti-independence Loyalist bloc). Speaking to media in Noumea, Dunoyer noted “New Caledonians have still not recovered the security to which they are entitled, nor the public freedoms which were taken from them. This dissolution of Parliament imposes a new deadline on them which they did not want, requiring the organisation of new elections to re-designate their representatives to the National Assembly”.

Jean-Pierre Djaïwé of the Parti de Liberation Kanak (Palika) told NC1ere TV: “After everything we have experienced in the country, what we need today is serenity. Going into elections, we know that this is not likely to bring serenity. Once again, we are suffering from Macron’s policy.”

In coming weeks, the French government will remain distracted by European developments: economic and energy woes at home; the war in Ukraine; and post-election manoeuvring within the European Commission and Parliament (where France has the second largest number of seats, after Germany).

Another complication is that France will host the Olympics and Paralympics from late July to early September. France has more than 3,500 police, riot squads and military personnel deployed on the ground in New Caledonia, and on 23 May, Macron pledged that “these forces will stay as long as necessary, even during the Olympic and Paralympic Games.” Now that France must guarantee security for the national elections as well as the Olympics, this is all getting overly complicated.

For Philippe Dunoyer, there’s a danger that the New Caledonia crisis will be pushed down the agenda and citizens will feel abandoned: “This period will probably not allow the adoption of measures which are very urgent, very important, particularly in terms of economic recovery, support for economic actors, support for our social protection system and for financing of New Caledonia.”

Most people abstain from voting

Before Sunday’s electoral disaster, French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said: “We will do everything necessary to ensure that the European elections take place in New Caledonia.”

Holding an election for a European legislature in the midst of a South Pacific crisis presents the façade of democracy, without the substance. As the French newspaper Le Monde noted before the vote, “a low turnout is once again expected in New Caledonia on 9 June. On the other hand, it is in the government’s interest to demonstrate that it is still capable of fulfilling its duty in this remote territory of the French Republic.”

Despite weeks of conflict in New Caledonia, none of the electoral manifestoes from the major French parties or coalitions contesting last Sunday’s vote mentioned current developments in the region – the vote was more about Ukraine than Tahiti. Some last minute electoral campaigning was done online – for example, a Facebook message to New Caledonian voters from Rassemblement’s François-Xavier Bellamy said: “New Caledonia is France, New Caledonia is Europe, and we will never give up this fight…. We must fight against the foreign powers that are today using the land of New Caledonia to fight France, and to tear down its flag.”

While there is often significant Pacific participation in elections for the French presidency and National Assembly, most voters ignore the European Parliament. At the last European elections in 2019, only 16.19% of registered voters in New Caledonia bothered to cast a ballot).

Voting is not compulsory in France and for many past elections, there have been low levels of turnout in the French Pacific dependencies for the parliament on the other side of the world (the European Parliament is located in the French town of Strasbourg, but most of its parliamentary committees meet in Brussels, Belgium, while the parliament’s General Secretariat is based in Luxembourg).

This year, just 13.35% of voters turned out – mainly, New Caledonians of European heritage who want to retain close ties to the French Republic. Many pro-French Loyalist politicians sought to rally their troops as a democratic duty, but it was hard to mobilise extensive interest amongst people living under a night-time curfew with 3,500 police and riot squads, backed by armoured cars, patrolling the streets. In a worrying sign, two thirds of those who did vote backed extreme-Right parties that are notorious for their racism and reluctance to engage with Pacific calls for self-determination and political independence.

The mobilisation of conservative, anti-independence supporters was highlighted in the provisional results for the poll: the electoral list supported by President Macron won 28.64% of votes cast in New Caledonia; followed by Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement Nationale (21.71%), La France fiere list backed by Marion Marechal and Eric Zemmour (16.01%); and the Rassemblement list led by François-Xavier Bellamy (12.66%). Without electoral mobilisation by the independence movement, parties on the Left (LFI, Socialistes, Greens) polled poorly, coming in under the 5% threshold required to win a seat.

The reluctance of indigenous Kanak and other supporters of independence to vote for a European parliament on the other side of the globe was stark, with even lower turnout in the rural north and outlying Loyalty Islands. It was little surprise that nearly 87% of New Caledonian voters stayed away from the polls on Sunday (joined by 86.4% of voters in French Polynesia and 68.5% of Wallisians and Futunians).

In the last 35 years, only two New Caledonians have ever served in the European Parliament. Both were Kanak politicians but – unlike most indigenous people – they wanted to retain New Caledonia within the French Republic.

From 1989 to 1994, Dick Ukeiwé served in the European legislature – born in Lifou, he was a member of the anti-independence party Rassemblement pour une Calédonie dans la République (RPCR). Years later, conservative Kanak politician Maurice Ponga, from Kouaoua in the Northern Province, served as a Member of the European Parliament between 2009-19 (Last April, keeping up the family tradition, Ponga’s nephew Alcide – the mayor of Kouaoua – was elected as president of the anti-independence Rassemblement-Les Républicains party in New Caledonia).

At last weekend poll, voters had to choose amongst 38 electoral lists that were chasing one of 81 French seats in the 720-member European Parliament. Until 2019, all the French overseas colonies would compete for a designated seat in Overseas Territory constituencies, which covered the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, Atlantic and Pacific. However, at the last European elections in 2019, the Macron administration changed the rules, abolishing all overseas constituencies! Today in France, there is only one national constituency for the EU elections, which means people across the country – and all the overseas colonies – choose from the same list of candidates.

Even though French voters in New Caledonia are eligible to vote for the European Union’s legislature, the islands are not legally part of EU territory, or within the Schengen zone that allows visa-free travel within the EU. Like other French colonies in the Pacific, New Caledonia uses the French Pacific Franc (CFP) rather than the Euro. Despite this, the CFP is pegged to the Euro at a fixed rate, so when the European currency gets a cold, New Caledonia gets the flu, regardless of local economic conditions.

Sunday’s poll has implications for the Pacific, however, as the European Union is a major contributor of development finance and climate change assistance to Forum Island Countries. French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna and New Caledonia hold the status of French Overseas Collectivities, meaning they are associated with the European Union as members of the EU’s Overseas Countries and Territories (OCT/PTOM) network – the remaining confetti of the 19th century European colonial empires.

As new coalitions are forged in the European Parliament, the increased representation of hard-right Right parties will strengthen two blocs: the ‘Identity and Democracy group’ and the ‘European Conservatives and Reformists’. The rise of these parties – full of conservative climate deniers – will pose serious challenges for small island developing states in the Pacific. A similar outlook may emerge in the United States, where Donald Trump is the leading Republican contender for the White House.