The recent stoush between Scott Morrison and French President Emmanuel Macron has raised the profile of France in the Australian media. France claims sovereignty over a group of Melanesian islands less than 1500km from Brisbane, closer to the Queensland capital than Melbourne.
New Caledonia sends representatives to the French Parliament, uses a currency that’s fixed to the value of the euro and hosts sections of the French army, navy and air force.
The Indigenous people, known as Kanak, have been fighting for independence for decades. Their struggle led to the 1998 framework agreement, known as the Noumea Accord, which conceded up to three referendums to decide whether New Caledonia should become independent.
France has now announced that the third referendum will take place on 12 December, angering independence parties, which have called for a delay until late 2022.
Nic Maclellan is a journalist and activist who’s worked in the Pacific region since 1986 with not-for-profits and the ABC. He’s the winner of the 2020 Sean Dorney Grant for Pacific Journalism and reports for Islands Business magazine, Inside Story, The Guardian and others. He spoke to David Glanz for Solidarity.
Can you give us a brief overview of the struggle for independence so far?
New Caledonia has gone through a colonial process very similar to Australia. The Indigenous Kanak people, a Melanesian people, were colonised in 1853. It was a prison colony originally, indeed people from the Paris Commune of 1871 were deported to New Caledonia, including the famous revolutionary Louise Michel.
Later, in the 1890s and beyond, there were free settlers arriving to take the land, particularly on the fertile west coast of the main island. And at the turn of the century people discovered nickel, a crucial strategic metal.
The Kanak population resisted this process of colonisation and theft of land right from the beginning. There were major revolts in 1878 and 1917.
Today’s Kanak nationalist movement harks back to those earlier revolts. Most recently there were violent clashes in the mid-1980s, particularly between 1984 and 1988, and a national liberation front, the FLNKS, the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front, called not for greater autonomy within France but full sovereign independence.
Clashes between the Kanak movement, armed settlers in the right-wing fascist groups and the French army ended in 1988, with a number of peace agreements.
The most important of those, a decade later in 1998, was the Noumea Accord. That set the country on a path to a series of referendums on its political status. And that’s where we’re up to today.
Where does the Kanak movement sit in the broader context of other Indigenous movements in the region, including here in Australia?
There are political parties in New Caledonia that date back to after the Second World War. But more recently in the 1970s the Kanak movement began building links across the Pacific.
PNG had moved to independence in 1975, East Timor was invaded, similarly in 1975. The National Party in the New Hebrides, a British-French condominium, created the Vanua’aku Pati which led to independence in 1980.
The Kanak movement built links with these neighbouring political movements, and also with people in French Polynesia, another French dependency in the eastern Pacific famous for French nuclear testing at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls. There have been strong links between Indigenous rights movements including the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander movement in Australia.
The independence movement is a full member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, which links together the states of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia’s Kanak movement.
The Noumea Accord allowed for three referendums. The Kanaks lost the first two votes but there was a clear improvement in the Yes vote between the first and the second referendum. The French decision to hold the third referendum in December has been described by senior independence leaders as resembling a declaration of war against the Kanak people and they are calling on people not to vote. So why have the French decided to press on and why do the Kanaks want it postponed?
The idea of the Noumea Accord was to put off a decision on political status and get supporters and opponents of independence working together. New political institutions were created, France bankrolled affirmative action programs and powers were transferred from Paris to Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia. The local government got control over things like health and education.
The final unique element of this transition was that there were three not one referenda. People were asked to vote on whether New Caledonia should stay as part of the French Republic or become a fully independent country.
Because of migration and settlement the Indigenous Kanak people only make up about 40 per cent of the population. So to win, they have to get support from people who migrated from other French dependencies in the region or from the European community.
In the first vote in November 2018, the independence movement did much better than people were expecting. Predictions were they would only get 30 per cent support. In fact, they got 43 per cent. In the second referendum, which was held in October last year, they got almost 47 per cent. There was clear momentum behind the independence campaign.
The feeling was that this momentum would carry over to the third vote. However, the French government, instead of negotiating an agreed date for the referendum, unilaterally set the date for 12 December. Kanak leaders have said that there should be a deferral because there’s been a massive surge of COVID-19 starting in early September.
There have been hundreds of deaths and the toll has fallen disproportionately on Kanak and other Islanders, who are the poorer members of the community and have less access to health care. But France has refused and is rushing ahead with this vote.
Why is it so important for France to have the vote now?
There’s a hope that there can be a strategic defeat for pro-independence forces, and the belief that if they lose the third referendum, that the Kanak movement will give up.
It also comes in a particular geopolitical context, where there’s growing tensions between the United States and China within what’s been dubbed the Indo-Pacific region.
In recent years French President Emmanuel Macron has made a big show about France’s possible contribution to the Western alliance which is seeking to contain China’s rising economic and political influence.
In 2018 Macron talked about creating an India-Australia-France axis in the Pacific, part of which was based on arms sales in the proposal that the French corporation Naval Group would build submarines for Australia, and that New Caledonia’s military facilities would be a pivot in France’s presence in the Indo-Pacific.
Scott Morrison and his government ripped up the submarines contract with France in a blow to France’s strategic vision that it is a major power in the Pacific.
Going ahead with the referendum regardless is a signal to Australia, New Zealand and the Americans that France wants to be an Indo-Pacific power.
What does the AUKUS alliance between Australia, the US, and the UK mean for Paris and their position in the Pacific? How important are the military bases in New Caledonia to France in projecting military power across the Pacific?
The French actually don’t have many military assets in the region—a couple of ageing frigates, some helicopters and patrol boats.
The presence in Australia, for example, of US marine deployments in the Northern Territory and the possibility that US and British submarines will now use the Sterling naval base outside of Fremantle in Western Australia for forward deployment into the region mean French Polynesia and New Caledonia can’t play the same role.
France has been wanting to present itself as a major power given it has overseas dependencies in every ocean of the world. But all of this has been played out in the lead-up to the French presidential elections.
A lot of this is political theatre from Macron who faces a challenge from extreme right parties like Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and a new neo-fascist named Eric Zammour. For Macron, there’s a crude party political interest in showing how tough he is and moving ahead with this referendum
What are the economic factors at play?
Nickel is the key industry in New Caledonia, it’s the major source of export earnings and paradoxically the greatest market for exports of the raw nickel ore is China. A crucial part of the independence struggle has been control of the nickel industry, both in terms of mining and smelting.
One of the key successes of the Noumea Accord transition was that the northern province, which is dominated by pro-independence parties, negotiated to build a major nickel smelter at Koniambo. That smelter has been exporting nickel not just to traditional partners like Australia and Japan but to South Korea and China. That’s broken the stranglehold that France has had over the smelting of nickel.
The referendum is remarkably close. Can the Kanak movement carry off a boycott movement that is sufficiently united and strong that it makes the referendum, if it goes ahead, clearly null and void and is the movement strong enough to force a further referendum from the French?
I haven’t been back to New Caledonia this year because of the COVID restrictions, so it’s difficult to get a sense of what’s going on on the ground.
I was there in 2018 for six weeks reporting on the referendum and spent a lot of time, not just in the capital Noumea talking with pundits and politicians, but going out to rural areas and talking to ordinary people. And I came back believing that the polls, which said that the independence movement would get 30 per cent support, and the media common sense was wrong. And that was the case.
Many people were shocked and surprised that the Kanak movement got 43 per cent. I think you’ll find the same thing now, but in this case, the independence movement is calling for non-participation in the referendum on 12 December.
The previous two referenda, in 2018 and 2020, had a massive turnout, over 80 per cent. That’s unprecedented for elections in France where voting is not compulsory. So I think you’ll see a massive fall in turn out.
This is a challenge for France because neighbouring Pacific countries are speaking out and worrying about whether this will be a fair, credible and transparent vote.
I think there may be a period of some months [afterwards] until people wait to see what happens with the French presidential election. The Kanak movement ultimately may want to negotiate with a new incoming president, and then the new French government elected in mid-2022.
But the Kanak movement is strong. I believe they will want to continue with the quest for independence having got so close.
What is the Australian government’s view on this situation and how is its relationship with France, fractured as it is at the moment, playing out in this context?
The official stated position of the Australian government is that this is a matter for New Caledonians. But for a long time Australia and France have been developing an extended strategic partnership in the region related to the attempts to rebuild the Western alliance in the face of rising Chinese influence.
This is a bipartisan policy. Kevin Rudd signed an agreement with the French government; that’s continued through the Turnbull administration; and then on with the Morrison government. The centrepiece of this was the submarine contract, but it involved a whole range of activities around joint military operations to bring France into regional activities.
France was seen as a crucial player by successive Labor and Liberal governments. That’s been blown up to a certain extent and there’s quite a lot of scrambling going on in an attempt to rebuild the relationship.
Our engagement with the Pacific around nuclear issues, around climate issues, but most importantly around self-determination and political independence is a key issue for Australia and Australians, because there are parallels with Bougainville and with the struggle in West Papua.
What’s happening in New Caledonia is part of a movement right across the Melanesian region, and further abroad with French Polynesia, seeking to end 20th century colonialism, but also to address the environmental, political and social legacies of that time.
Listen to the conversation in full below.