Forum mission questions credibility of New Caledonia referendum


By Nic Maclellan

Last December, the Pacific Islands Forum sent a ministerial mission to New Caledonia, to monitor the conduct of the third referendum on self-determination under the Noumea Accord. Their report, obtained by Islands Business, is sharply critical of the referendum process.

A large delegation from New Caledonia, led by President Louis Mapou, is in Suva this week for the 51st Pacific Islands Forum, with the Government of New Caledonia seeking regional support for its economic and political agenda. President Mapou is the first pro-independence Kanak leader to head the government in 40 years.

In line with regional concerns over good governance in member states, the Pacific Islands Forum sent a mission to New Caledonia in December 2021, to monitor the conduct of the last referendum on self-determination under the 1998 Noumea Accord. The mission was led by veteran Fijian politician and diplomat Ambassador Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, together with Forum Secretary General Henry Puna, and Samoa’s High Commissioner to Fiji Ali’ioaiga Feturi Elisaia, formerly the Samoan ambassador to the United Nations.

On Friday, Forum foreign ministers meeting in Suva received a copy of their report of the Ministerial mission, for consideration before this week’s Forum leaders’ retreat. While acknowledging the welcome of French authorities and complimenting the conduct of the voting, the Forum mission raises serious concerns over the legitimacy and credibility of the December vote.

The report concludes: “The self-determination referendum that took place 12 December 2021 did so with the non-participation of the overwhelming majority of the indigenous people of New Caledonia. The result of the referendum is an inaccurate representation of the will of registered voters and instead can be interpreted as a representation of a deep-seated ethnic division in New Caledonia, which the Committee fears has been exacerbated by the State’s refusal to postpone the referendum.”

The refusal of French President Macron and Overseas Minister Lecornu to delay the vote until late 2022 undid decades of work to promote reconciliation between supporters and opponents of independence under the Noumea Accord. The Forum mission notes that “a postponement could have prevented the political polarisation that now threatens to derail all the hard work and achievements that have been accomplished in the last three decades.”

For many Forum Island Countries, France is welcomed as a key development partner on climate change and oceans policy, and a driving force in European Union commitments to the region. There is, however, widespread unease about the way the Macron administration rammed through last December’s referendum, in the face of express opposition from Kanak customary leaders and independence politicians.

Rushed vote

Over the last five years, there have been three referendums on New Caledonia’s political status, under the Noumea Accord, a 1998 agreement between the French government and supporters and opponents of independence. After more than twenty years’ transition involving the devolution of powers from Paris to New Caledonia, the referendums asked “Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?”

In the first referendum, in November 2018, the Yes campaign unexpectedly won 43% support; in the second, in October 2020, this rose to 46.6%. The independence coalition Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) was hoping for majority support in the third and final vote scheduled for late 2022, but France rushed to hold the vote in December 2021.

The decision on the earlier date was taken unilaterally by the French government, with former Overseas Minister Sébastien Lecornu failing to seek a consensus of all major parties. The decision to proceed was taken soon after the AUKUS agreement ruptured France’s partnership with Australia,

In September and October 2021, New Caledonia suffered a massive wave of coronavirus infection, and Kanak customary and political leaders had called for a delay in the poll. Paris refused, and a broad coalition of independence parties, unions and customary leaders issued a call for peaceful “non-participation” in the vote. Turnout plummeted as tens of thousands of independence supporters – mainly indigenous Kanak – stayed at home, with participation nearly halved compared to the 2018 and 2020 votes.

Last February, reflecting on this protest, Forum Secretary General Henry Puna told Islands Business: “I think the option taken by the FLNKS not to participate in the referendum was the honourable thing to do.”

“My feeling overall was one of sadness at the situation on the ground there,” Puna said. “The sadness that I felt was that the voices of the indigenous community were not heard or taken notice of.”

Political polarisation

French diplomats have told Islands Business that the low turnout for the vote did not affect its outcome under French law, a claim endorsed by France’s highest administrative court, the Conseil d’Etat. Despite this, the Forum mission reports that while “no minimum voter participation threshold is required to legally legitimise the referendum result, principles of democracy like voter participation were severely lacking.”

In its report to regional leaders, the Forum diplomats concluded: “The overall outcome of the vote cast serious doubt over the legitimacy of the referendum result, particularly noting that less than 44% of registered voters participated in 2021, compared to 81.01% in 2018 and 85.69% in 2020. Accordingly, the Committee is of the view that the referendum was not carried out in the spirit of the Noumea Accord, which empowers the status of Kanak identity and custom…it was a referendum on self-determination that took place without the majority of first peoples in New Caledonia and their supporters.”

Today, the Kanak independence movement continues to seek political sovereignty and independence, with FLNKS spokesperson Daniel Goa stating: “Kanaky-New Caledonia is not a French land as some people think, but a land of Oceania. This land is Melanesian. We no longer want to be stooges of ‘France Pacific’ and the nebulous Indo-Pacific axis.”

Leaders of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) echo these concerns about the credibility of the December vote, and are united behind the FLNKS as it prepares for new negotiations with Paris. Alongside Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, the FLNKS is a full MSG member. Fiji and Papua New Guinea are also members of the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation, and play a significant diplomatic role to support the independence movement.

Under newly appointed Director General Leonard Louma, the MSG continues to call on France to meet its decolonisation obligations under the UN Charter. In an interview with Islands Business, Louma said: “New Caledonia is still regarded as a non-self-governing territory. France as an administering power has certain responsibilities that it has assumed because of this status of New Caledonia. France has also assumed certain responsibilities under the Noumea Accord. For the MSG Secretariat, we would want to see that France remains honest and faithful to its responsibilities.”

The Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC) – the region’s main ecumenical organisation – has also been a vocal supporter of the Kanak people. PCC will hold its next regional church Assembly in New Caledonia in 2023, as a gesture of solidarity.

Last month, PCC General Secretary Reverend James Bhagwan travelled to New York to speak before the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation, raising regional concerns about the decolonisation process in New Caledonia.

“It is imperative that, in the spirit of Pacific regionalism, they address the lack of moral or political legitimacy of a referendum that took place without the full participation the colonised people, who have the right to self-determination,” said Rev. Bhagwan.

Bhagwan told the UN Special Committee that “Fiji as Forum chair, and New Zealand along with Australia, which has recently announced a planned indigenous focus in its foreign policy, should leverage their roles in the Indo-Pacific framework, the Indo-Pacific strategy, to urge France to engage in a self-determination process for Kanaky-New Caledonia that respects the rights, dignity and culture of the Kanak people.”

Rebuilding France-Australia ties

Despite these calls, Australia is prioritising its strategic partnership with France over the concerns of Melanesian neighbours. At last Friday’s Forum Foreign Ministers Meeting (FFMM), New Caledonian representatives were concerned that the Australian delegation sought to water down the language of a draft resolution welcoming the report of the Forum Ministerial Mission.

Mickael Forrest is the Minister for External Relations in the Government of New Caledonia, and represented the French dependency at the FFMM. Speaking after the meeting, Forrest told Islands Business: “This action raises many questions for us, because Australia has voted regularly for our resolutions at the United Nations, including the resolution this year that raised concerns about the conduct of the third referendum – that because of the pandemic, people could not campaign and it was not a free decision.”

“Under the Noumea Accord, our Government has the power to undertake regional co-operation, so we are looking to our closest neighbours to accompany us on our political transition,” Forrest said. “We have strong support on the diplomatic level from the PSIDS members at the United Nations, especially from the Melanesian Spearhead Group nations. We believe that our experience can set a model for other peoples, like those in West Papua, seeking to affirm their innate and active right to self-determination.”

Despite this, self-determination movements in Bougainville, West Papua and New Caledonia all create complications for the regional diplomacy of the newly elected Albanese government in Australia. The Labor government has moved rapidly to reset Australia’s strategic relationship with France, ruptured by the September 2021 AUKUS agreement and the cancellation of the A$90 billion Naval Group submarine contract.

Since Emmanuel Macron’s re-election in April and the change of government in Australia in May, there has been a quick rapprochement. An initial phone call between the French President and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese opened the way for the two countries to improve relations, with the Elysée Palace reporting: “the Head of State and the Australian Prime Minister have agreed to rebuild a bilateral relationship based on trust and respect to jointly overcome global challenges, foremost among which is the climate emergency and the strategic challenges in the Indo-Pacific.”

Australia issued a compensation payment of A$830 million dollars for the breach of the Naval Group submarine contract, a sum that Prime Minister Albanese described as “fair and equitable.”

Albanese then visited Macron in Paris on 1 July and both nations agreed to collaborate around three pillars: defence and security; resilience and climate action; and education and culture. There is, however, a core focus on military co-operation, to “shape a new defence relationship and strengthen our collaboration and exchange on shared security interests, including through operational engagement and intelligence sharing.” Paris and Canberra agreed to “support each other’s deployments and conduct more joint maritime activities in support of the rules-based global order. We will also explore initiatives to deepen and facilitate better reciprocal access to our defence facilities.”

In all this bonhomie, there was silence about France’s obligations as an administering power in New Caledonia, responsible for the decolonisation process in one of Australia’s closest neighbours.

New Caledonia is largely invisible in the current media furore over China in the Pacific, even as supporters and opponents of independence are preparing for crucial negotiations with the incoming French government. The talks will focus on the future political status of France’s Pacific dependency, with a new agreement supposed to be finalised by June 2023.

Fearing China’s regional influence, leading members of the new ALP government have promoted France as a stable, democratic partner in the Pacific. In April, Richard Marles MP – now the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia – said: “France is our neighbour. France is a Pacific country. And as such, France deeply matters to Australia.”

For Australia’s Melanesian neighbours however, France is a European country and a colonial power in the Pacific. These competing visions will play out in coming months, as the new French government seeks to negotiate a new political status with supporters and opponents of independence.

It’s clear that the French government has given up any pretence of neutrality and tensions will soon rise. After his re-election in April, President Macron named Sonia Backès as the local representative in New Caledonia for his rebranded Renaissance party. The President of New Caledonia’s Southern Province, Backès is an outspoken conservative and a fierce opponent of independence.

Following France’s recent legislative elections, where Macron lost his parliamentary majority in the National Assembly, the new government led by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne includes key opponents of independence. France’s Minister of Interior Gerard Darmanin now adds the Overseas Ministry to his portfolio, while Sonia Backès is rewarded with un unprecedented post as the Secretary of State for Citizenship.

The FLNKS are less than impressed that Macron has chosen their political rival to co-ordinate the looming negotiations on political status. With Darmanin scheduled to visit Noumea on 26 July, these changes highlight the tension between Kanak aspirations for independence and France’s colonial intransigence – a tension that poses problems for the new Australian government.

Forum support for First Nations

This week in Suva, New Caledonia’s President Louis Mapou will lead a large delegation to his first face-to-face Forum, including leading figures like Congress President Roch Wamytan and former FLNKS spokesperson Victor Tutugoro.

On Thursday, President Mapou will be the first pro-independence Kanak leader to sit in the Forum leaders’ retreat in the history of the organisation. But how will Australia, New Zealand and other Forum members respond to his call for support to continue the decolonisation process?

Even as New Caledonia has sought closer regional integration since joining the Forum in 2016, successive Australian governments have reduced practical development support in recent years. For example, a spokesperson of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) told Islands Business that “the Australia Awards scholarship program was discontinued in New Caledonia and French Polynesia in 2017, as they were not eligible to receive official development assistance”!

During the Australian election campaign, ALP Senator Penny Wong – now Foreign Minister – announced that the new Labor government would deliver “a First Nations foreign policy that weaves the voices and practices of the world’s oldest continuing culture into the way we talk to the world, and the work of DFAT.” This will include the appointment of an ambassador for First Nations peoples, and the establishment within DFAT of an Office of First Nations Engagement.

But will this First Nations foreign policy respect the right to self-determination for the colonised Kanak people of New Caledonia, one of Australia’s closest neighbours?.