French President Emmanuel Macron warned Wednesday that separatism could lead to violence in the Pacific territory of New Caledonia, as he urged the pro-independence camp to accept a string of votes to stay part of France.
On a landmark visit following three referendums that have rejected secession, Macron insisted the archipelago’s future was within France.
“Taking refuge in separatism actually means choosing the risk of violence today or tomorrow,” Macron said, in a land that experienced violent pro-independence protests in the 1980s.
France vowed in the Noumea Accord of 1998 to gradually give more political power to its territory.
Under the agreement, New Caledonia held three referendums in the past five years over its ties with France — all rejecting independence.
“After these three referendums, I do not underestimate the disappointed hopes of those who backed a completely different project” Macron told a gathering at a square in the capital Noumea.
“But I say to them all, together we all have to have the grace to accept these results and to build the future together,” Macron said.
The vote was between 53 and 57 percent in favour of remaining part of France in the first two referendums.
But the pro-independence indigenous Kanaks rejected the result of the last referendum held in December 2021.
It resulted in a 97-percent vote against secession after Kanaks boycotted the process due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The French leader said he was proud the votes had been carried out.
“The three referendums took place. New Caledonia is French because it has chosen to be French,” he insisted.
“I will also be with you all and the president of a new project I want to build with you — that of New Caledonia in the Republic.”
Macron said he wanted a revised constitutional status for New Caledonia to be in place by the beginning of 2024.
He vowed there would be “no backtracking” and “no standstill”.
To those seeking to break away from France, the president warned of China’s growing influence in the South Pacific.
If secession leads to China establishing a base in New Caledonia, “good luck, that is not called independence”, Macron said.
He urged people to take note of countries in the region “that have lost their sovereignty”, without offering further explanation.
China has notably signed a string of secretive deals with Solomon Islands, including on security and policing. But both countries deny any plan for a Chinese military base there.
Macron had been due to meet earlier on Wednesday with pro- and anti-independence camps to discuss a future for the nickel-rich South Pacific territory of nearly 300,000 people.
But the French leader said he was “personally hurt” by the absence of some pro-independence representatives at the meeting.
Negotiations on a new constitutional status for the territory have been bogged down, notably over the voting system, with a future path for self-determination also up in the air.
Macron is at the same time seeking to reassert his country’s importance in the Pacific region, where China and the United States are vying for influence but France has territories such as New Caledonia and French Polynesia.
After a 48-hour stop in New Caledonia, the head of state is to make the first visits by a sitting French president to Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, where he is expected to lay out a “French alternative” for the region.
Macron has had to reassemble a Pacific strategy since Australia in 2021 tore up a deal for France to provide a fleet of diesel-powered submarines, opting instead for US- and British-built nuclear-powered vessels.