By Denise Fisher

France’s action in transporting eight indigenous New Caledonian detainees to metropolitan France can only fan the flames of ethnic and political difference that have erupted into violence in recent weeks. It is the latest in a series of moves by France which, while applying French law, in fact undermines stability.

Seven weeks after the outbreak of violence in New Caledonia by independence supporters opposed to broadening voter eligibility, uncertainty is mounting. It leaves a bleak outlook for the French territory that is eastern Australia’s closest Pacific neighbour. Each of the players – the French government, the loyalist and independence parties – is entrenching their position. This is all to the detriment of early dialogue, so essential to building a durable future.

The deployment of 4,000 security reinforcements from France has failed to clear the blockades erected by independence supporters across major roads and by loyalists protecting their residential streets. While all leaders call for peace, independence leaders also want withdrawal of the voter eligibility reform under way in Paris, and interrupted by French President Emmanuel Macron calling a national parliamentary election on 9 June. They advocate instead reconsidering existing provisions, which currently advantage indigenous residents, only as part of a comprehensive locally-negotiated agreement. Loyalists are equally determined to broaden voter eligibility to their advantage.

A brief recounting of the background is needed to understand how this point has been reached.

On 13 June, Macron said he was “suspending” his controversial voter eligibility legislation. The CCAT, the committee mobilising independence protests, maintained that “suspending” did not amount to “withdrawing” the legislation. As violence continued, independence coalition (FLNKS) leaders called on Macron to be clearer about his intention.

On 18 June, Macron wrote a letter to New Caledonians stating that he had decided not to call a joint meeting of parliament, the final step of his legislative reform, effectively dropping the proposal.

Pacific governments rightfully expect that France, their neighbour, should maintain that tradition of compromise, mutual respect and consensus, to foster a peaceful outcome.

Meanwhile, the FLNKs had convened its general congress on 16 June, to consider the way forward. They had been blindsided by Macron’s decision to call a national parliamentary election at short notice, so an already lengthy agenda was compounded with the need to endorse united FLNKS candidates. In the event, hundreds of young CCAT supporters turned up, seeking to participate. As numbers were restricted, leaders postponed the meeting, noting constraints resulting from traditional meal and hospitality arrangements by customary chief hosts.

Thus, vital discussions were deferred. As a result, given tight registration deadlines, the only independence candidates to contest upcoming national elections are from the hardline Union Calédonienne.

Disturbances have also continued, with buildings burned and confrontations with police.

On 19 June, French authorities arrested a number of CCAT members. This included Joël Tjibaou, son of revered independence leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou. CCAT spokesman Christian Tein voluntarily reported to police to put the case for its activities. He too was arrested.

The initial interrogation occurred on 22 June. Then later that night eight detainees, including Tein, were removed by private charter to France. Held in different prisons across metropolitan France, they are far from their lawyers and family support.

The action took New Caledonians by surprise, including lawyers for those deported. They are appealing, in the absence of their clients. Under French law, their appeal must be decided within two weeks. Violence has increased since the deportations.

This action is another case of France overriding local concerns and context by applying French law, again quite within its powers, to address what it sees as a domestic administration problem, but with destabilising and ultimately counterproductive political effect.

It has become a pattern. France went ahead with the controversial third independence referendum in 2021 despite indigenous objections and then endorsed the pro-France result, despite a massive indigenous boycott. Again, this strictly complied with French law. And despite the resultant political impasse, as independence parties rejected the result, France unsuccessfully sought to convene the final discussion phase of the Noumea Accord, with some independence elements declining to participate.

The subsequent unilateral imposition by France of legislation broadening the electorate and diluting the vote of the indigenous people, altering a fundamental compromise underpinning the 25-year Noumea Accord, also fell within France’s powers and that of its parliament. But it too proved politically counterproductive. Without local consultation, the move led to the current riots and violent opposition by indigenous independence supporters, particularly the young.

France’s decision to re-locate indicted CCAT leaders to the other side of the world is also legal. But it is rare for France to move people under indictment to prisons far from the location of the alleged offence. Judicial sources say the procedure was applied in New Caledonia during the bloody 1980s disturbances. It’s a sobering parallel.

France, and Macron in particular, have claimed an Indo-Pacific strategy based on French sovereignty in the Pacific. France has won respect for its innovation and flexibility in agreements it negotiated with New Caledonians from 1988, and implemented so successfully to 2021, even adapting France’s constitution to local conditions. Pacific governments rightfully expect that France, their neighbour, should maintain that tradition of compromise, mutual respect and consensus, to foster a peaceful outcome in its Pacific territory.