French Parliament debates polarize tensions in New Caledonia

Analysis – Debates in the French Parliament in Paris this week have once again polarized tensions back in New Caledonia, around the sensitive issue of the French Pacific archipelago’s future and the proposed changes for the list of eligible voters at local elections.

On Wednesday and Thursday, opposing groups and parties in favour and against the French government-driven project have simultaneously taken to the streets of Nouméa, only a few hundred meters away from each other.

The march was organised by a so-called CCAT (Field Action Co-ordination Cell, close to Union Calédonienne [UC, one of the components of the FLNKS pro-independence umbrella.].

Some, on the pro-independence side, were voicing their opposition to the proposed changes, which have been debated on Tuesday in the French Senate.

Others, responding to a call from two pro-French parties, the Rassemblement and Les Loyalistes, were chanting “one man, one vote.”

The current plan, presented by French Home Affairs and Overseas Minister Gérald Darmanin, aims at ending the current voting restrictions for local elections by replacing the list of voters “frozen” since 1998 by a “sliding” clause that allow citizens who have been residing for at least ten years uninterrupted to cast their votes at provincial elections (for the three Provinces’ assemblies as well as for the French entity’s Parliament, the Congress).

CAT-organised Pro-independence protest march en route to central Nouméa on Thursday 28 March 2024

The pro-independence movement fears that the changes, if endorsed, could eventually increase the proportion of non-indigenous Kanak voters and make them a minority.

But Darmanin repeatedly argued that the changes were necessary for France to restore a minimum of democratic rules and put an end to the “transition” restrictions prescribed by the autonomy loaded Nouméa Accord signed in 1998.

On Tuesday, during preliminary public debates in the French Senate [Upper House], Darmanin’s draft was significantly amended especially on the enforcement timeline. Some Senators, including the Chairman of the law committee, have clearly indicated they wanted to “relax” a perceived deadline for the 1st of July and give more time for talks back in New Caledonia to reach a consensus on the more general topic of New Caledonia’s political future.

The inclusive and consensual agreement would then serve as the basis for an Accord deemed to replace and succeed the 1998 Nouméa Accord.

Southern Province President and pro-French Les Loyalistes party leader Sonia Backès speaks during a demonstration on Thursday 28 March 2024 in front of the Congress, Central Nouméa

As the Paris debate on Tuesday is due to resume next week with a Senate vote on 2 April, in Nouméa, tensions have been exacerbated.

On Thursday, an estimated three thousand protesters had gathered in front of the local Congress, in downtown Nouméa.

Responding to a call from Southern Province President and leader of pro-French Les Loyalistes party Sonia Backès, they were there to protest against controversial tax projects from the government, but also to reaffirm their determination to see the proposed changes in the local electoral roll become reality.

“We are here to claim that we will not just sit and let our country die because some people have decided to implement a policy of scorched ground. Today we rise to say ‘stop, enough is enough'”, Southern Province Vice-President Philippe Blaise told the crowd of participants brandishing French tricolour flags.

“We won’t leave, we will fight […] I am speaking to all those Parliamentarians in Paris who are scared of possible unrest in New Caledonia. It will be us who will cause unrest if some people are trying to tread upon us. Enough is enough!”, Backès told the crowd.

The pro-independence CCAT demonstration, not far away, brought thousands of Kanaky flags deployed by an estimated 5,000 participants.

Christian Tein, Head of pro-independence Union Calédonienne’s Field Actions’ Coordination Committee, speaking at during a march on Thursday 28 March 2024

CCAT coordinator Christian Tein told local media the electoral roll issue was “the mother of all battles”, from his movement’s point of view and that the FLNKS had asked for some time that the French Constitutional amendment draft should be withdrawn altogether.

Both demonstrations were following different itineraries, one march ending in front of the Congress and later the French High Commission, the other in front of the local government building in downtown Nouméa.

Almost five hundred security forces were deployed for both marches on Thursday and managed to ensure that the two crowds did not interact, and no significant incident was reported.

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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