Wise elders call for peaceful referendum

By Nic Maclellan in Noumea, New Caledonia

Jean Leques, the former President of New Caledonia and mayor of Noumea, wants everyone to calm down.

“The French Prime Minister asked that the referendum campaign proceed in a calm manner,” he said. “It’s not an ad hominem election, it’s a consultation on the future of New Caledonia. However recent days have been marked by initiatives, by attitudes and by statements that are sharply contrary to the spirit of the Matignon Accords and the Noumea Accord,” the political agreements signed in 1988 and 1998 that ended New Caledonia’s armed conflict of the mid-1980s.

Leques is chair of the Comité des sages (Committee of wise men and women), a body established last December by French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe during a visit to New Caledonia. Philippe envisaged an informal structure to promote dialogue between the Kanak people and non-Kanak communities, a committee made up of twelve elders who are “recognised and respected, reflecting the diversity of New Caledonia.”

Meeting for the first time just days after Christmas 2017, the Committee members have met over the last ten months, seeking to monitor the progress towards New Caledonia’s 4 November referendum on self-determination and working to hose down potential conflicts between contending parties.

Wise old men and women

Jean Leques is a long-time loyalist politician from the conservative Rassemblement Party. Leques served as mayor of Noumea between 1986 and 2014, and was the first President of the Government of New Caledonia created after the 1998 Noumea Accord.

Speaking after a meeting of the Committee, Leques said: “The task that we’ve been given is that the referendum campaign should proceed in the best conditions, that there should be no personal attacks or proposals that step outside the framework set firstly by the Matignon Accords and then by the Noumea Accord.”

Alongside Leques, other mayors and political leaders on the Committee include Robert Frouin of Koumac and the former mayor of the rural town of Bourail Jean-Pierre Taïeb Aïfa, whose father Taïeb Ben Assen was deported from the French colony of Algeria to New Caledonia.

Civil society figures include Elie Poigoune (President the Ligue des droits de l’Homme – Human Rights league), Marie-Claude Tjibaou (widow of FLNKS founder Jean-Marie Tjibaou) and  Anne-Marie Mestre (President of the women’s organisation SOS Violences sexuelles).

Jurist Fote Trolue was the first Kanak magistrate appointed to New Caledonia’s judiciary, while Jean-Pierre Flotat has served on the Comité économique, social et environnemental (CESE), an advisory body for New Caledonia’s local legislature. Cultural leaders include Sosefo Falaeo, an elder from the Wallisian community, and Octave Togna, former director of the Agence de développement de la culture kanak (ADCK), the founding director of the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre.

Religious leaders include Father Rock Apikaoua of the Catholic Church, and Pastor Billy Wapotro, former director of the Alliance Scholaire of New Caledonia’s main Protestant church, the Eglise Evangélique.

Drawing on a tradition of palabre

Billy Wapotro told me that dialogue was central to the referendum process, regardless of a Yes or No result, in order to avoid any return to violence like les évènements (the period of armed conflict that divided New Caledonia between 1984 and 1988).

“Our mission today is to assist people to speak freely but also to avoid any overflow of emotion, any excesses,” he said. “Our mission is designed to ensure that things go well in the territory. We learnt a fact from les évènements that we already knew from the long history of colonisation – there was a lack of dialogue. Now, for thirty years, we’ve been living with political agreements designed so that we can do things together. This is a major achievement.”

Wapotro said that the current dialogue between communities reflected Kanak traditions of palabre (dialogue at a customary assembly).

“In 1980, there was a dialogue amongst Kanak customary chiefs, initiated by a high chief from Lifou,” he said. “They agreed that the Kanak people must reclaim their land, but that this must be done together with the minorities living in the country. I was part of those discussions at the time.

“We then met with the leaders of the Provisional Government of Kanaky – leaders like Yann Celene Uregei, Jean-Marie Tjibaou, Eloi Machoro – and we urged them to find a solution to the problem of how we could live together, recognising the status of minority communities other than the Kanak people. At Nainville-les-Roches in 1983, they came forward with the proposal recognising ‘the victims of history’ [the descendants of the convicts, indentured labourers and settlers brought to New Caledonia by the French colonial state].”

Talking to the young

Throughout the last ten months, the Committee of elders have reached out to younger New Caledonians, who were born after the violent clashes of the 1980s.

“We wanted to talk to young people to explain to them the meaning of the referendum vote, and to explain our mandate all through the campaign,” said Jean Leques. “We’ve been to Bourail, we’ve been all round Noumea and we attended a Youth Congress held at the local parliament.”

Elie Poigoune agreed: “I was pleasantly surprised by the attitude of young people. Certainly they are worried about some things – they put a number of questions to us about their concerns, such as ‘would our university degrees have the same value after independence?’ But they stressed that they want to live together.”

Jean-Pierre Aifa said that younger New Caledonians used social media to communicate, but often missed out on information circulated through official channels: “They had questions about what will happen if there’s a Yes vote, but also what will happen if there’s a No vote!  The French State has put out a document spelling out the process after the referendum, but in my opinion, it hasn’t been circulated widely enough, especially amongst young people.”

Despite this, Pastor Billy Wapotro celebrated the passion of the young people that they had met during the Committee’s dialogue sessions.

“Whenever we’ve met them, the young people – in the university, the high schools, the junior secondary colleges – have responded with questions to our questions!” he joked. “The youth said: ‘Why are you asking us about division?  We want to live together, we are living together already and we will live together!’”

“This was surprising for people of our generation, who grew up isolated in the Kanak reserves. They’re asking different questions to us,” Wapotro said. “I think there’s been an evolution of their understanding of the country. Our generation are past it, but the young people – the leaders of tomorrow – are much more constructive.”

Chastising politicians

On 16 October, the Committee issued a “Call for Moderation”, concerned about “anonymous diatribes on social media and insults, often racist, which could damage social cohesion by not respecting the right to difference, the identity of all and the legitimacy of each community.”

In an “even-handed” slap at the independence movement and supporters of the French Republic, the Committee criticised political leaders from both sides of the referendum debate.

They criticised as a “useless provocation” recent actions by the speaker of New Caledonia’s Congress Gael Yanno, a Right-wing politician who founded the anti-independence Mouvement populaire calédonien (MPC). Yanno recently removed the colours of the flag of Kanaky from the facade of the Congress, breaching a 2010 policy that the multi-coloured flag of the Kanak independence movement should be flown outside alongside the French tricolour outside public buildings.

The Committee also criticised Daniel Goa, spokesperson for the Front de Liberation Nationale et Socialiste (FLNKS) and President of the Union Calédonienne (UC) party. In a 6 October speech, Goa described the three main anti-independence parties as the “axis of evil,” which the Committee chastised as a step too far, engendering “hate and mistrust.”

Speaking to me later in the week, Goa suggested that the Committee members had misunderstood his reference, which was to a political system and not to particular personalities. He also welcomed that the Committee had acknowledged his role in negotiating a peaceful solution to a conflict in the village of Ouegoa, in New Caledonia’s north (earlier this month, Right-wing activists try to block the FLNKS from holding a community meeting about the referendum. After negotiations, the meeting proceeded under the watchful eyes of French police).

Elie Poigoune stated: “Overall, the calm conduct of the referendum is a sign of the political responsibility of our leaders. As members of the Committee, we’ve met with all of the political parties participating in the referendum process, except for the Parti Travailliste which declined to meet us, and I think we were well received by all.”

The small Parti Travailliste (Labour Party) draws its support from the trade union confederation USTKE and radical members of the independence movement. In a press communique last March, the party rejected the Committee’s authority to mediate political disputes, arguing that it “has no power to judge or sanction any excesses during the referendum campaign. They will maybe intend to reprimand people or parties that do not follow the electoral rules – but there is an electoral code for that and the French State retains the power to implement that…it seems that the Committee’s role is not what has been announced, but rather to orient the debate towards a new agreement which is being formulated and which will benefit a new governing majority after the 2019 elections.”

Social conflicts

The referendum campaign has been remarkably low key, but travelling around the country, you can’t miss a number of long-running social and environmental disputes. As firefighters protest outside parliament, and employer organisations rally against a new government consumption tax, these disputes highlight the disparities of wealth and power in this highly unequal society.

At Kouaoua, in the Northern Province, young Kanaks have disagreed with their elders and blocked the planned expansion of three mining sites at Mont Calm, Chênegomme and Newco. The mineral reserves are controlled by Société Le Nickel (SLN), a subsidiary of the French corporation Eramet (which is partially controlled by the French State).

In recent years, the youth have tried to protect forested areas in their municipality, which may be threatened by the mining expansion. A conveyer belt carrying ore from two existing SLN mines to the coast has been torched or sabotaged a dozen times, and since August access roads have been blocked by burnt cars and rocks. Despite attempts at mediation, the long-running dispute is impacting on the production of nickel metal at SLN’s Doniambo smelter in the capital Noumea, which relies of particular grades of ore from the site.

Right-wing parties like Les Républicains Calédoniennes (LRC) have been promoting a law and order agenda, chastising “Kanak delinquency” and calling for a police crackdown. Despite this, provincial and national authorities are reluctant to use heavy handed tactics at Kouaoua, just weeks from the referendum.

Disputes like this highlight the challenge for the Committee of elders – their call for “moderation and calm” falls on deaf ears for people who are angry at an unjust status quo. People at the grassroots have often missed out from the revenues flowing from Paris to Noumea since the 1998 Noumea Accord.

In this context, French Prime Minister Philippe has announced that he will travel to New Caledonia the day after the 4 November referendum, accompanied by Overseas Minister Annick Girardin. It’s clear that the French State wants to reinforce the path to dialogue in the post-referendum afterglow. New Caledonia’s political parties are already gearing up for six months of electioneering before May 2019 elections for the three provincial assemblies and national Congress.