French Senate endorses new election rules for New Caledonia, but with amendments

Analysis – The French Senate on Tuesday endorsed a Constitutional review project bearing significant modifications to the local electoral rules for New Caledonia, but with amendments.

The text passed with 233 votes in favour and 99 against.

It aims at modifying the conditions for French citizens to access a special list of voters for the elections in New Caledonia’s three provinces and the Congress.

Since 2007 the electoral for those local elections was described as “frozen” to only allow persons residing in New Caledonia before 1998.

However, the French government and its Home Affairs and Overseas minister Gérald Darmanin introduced earlier this year a new text for a “sliding” electoral roll allowing citizens who had been residing in New Caledonia for an uninterrupted ten years to access the local roll.

The move has been strongly contested by pro-independence parties in New Caledonia, who fear the new rules (which would allow up to 25,000 voters to access the local suffrage) will threaten the French Pacific entity’s political balances.

During heated debates last week and Tuesday for the vote, Senators sometimes traded vigorous words, with the left-wing parties (including Socialists and Communists) rallying in support of New Caledonia’s pro-independence parties and accusing Darmanin of “forcing the text through”.

New Caledonia’s pro-independence umbrella, the FLNKS, last week officially demanded that the French government withdraw its Constitutional amendment project and that, instead, a high-level mediatory mission be sent to New Caledonia.

Parallel to the Parliamentary moves, New Caledonia’s politicians, both pro and against independence, have been asked to sit together and engage in comprehensive talks in order to devise a new agreement that would replace the now-defunct Nouméa Accord, signed in 1998.

One of the Accord’s prescriptions was that three consecutive referendums on New Caledonia’s self-determination be held.

Examine the ‘situation thus generated: Nouméa Accord

All three took place between 2018 and 2021 and three times, a majority rejected the notion of independence.

Even though the FLNKS has since contested the value of the third referendum, French President Emmanuel Macron said in July 2023 he now considered New Caledonia wanted to remain French and that the next step in the Nouméa Accord was for political stakeholders to engage in “inclusive” talks to examine the “situation thus generated”.

The French government’s current moves are said to be a pragmatic response to those sometimes elusive guidelines.

The provincial elections, which were originally scheduled to take place in May, are now postponed to December 15 “at the latest”.

But in the Constitutional review project (which is separate), even though the sole subject is the change in access to local elections roll of voters, there are also references to the date of those elections.

This includes that even if a local, bipartisan, inclusive agreement was found and duly recognised between now and December 15, the Constitutional amendment would become irrelevant and priority would be given to a locally-produced New Caledonian agreement to serve as the base for a new Constitutional amendment.

‘Give more time’

During debates since last week, the Senate’s Law Committee managed to introduce new amendments, sometimes rectifying the initial government text.

For instance, if the much-expected accord (deemed to succeed the Nouméa Agreement) came through, there would be a call for a new election date.

And originally, this would have been achieved by way of a government decree which, the government said, would be the fastest way.

Now the Senate has changed that to a Parliamentary-driven process (also including New Caledonia’s Congress) which could take much more time to set in place.

The general idea, the Senate’s Law Committee said, was to “give more time” for the expected political agreement to happen “without applying excessive stress” to the whole process.

There was nevertheless consensus on the necessity to “unfreeze” the local electoral roll (the measure was initially temporary and transitional under the Nouméa Accord) because it denied some 12,000 citizens (even if some of those, indigenous Kanaks or non-Kanaks, were born in New Caledonia) the right to vote.

It was feared that if those elections were held under the “frozen” rule, they would probably be declared invalid and unconstitutional.

Critics of the amendment, including New Caledonia’s first pro-independence Senator Robert Xowie, also stressed that the manner in which it was “forced”, more than its substance, was a major flaw and that the French State should keep an “impartial” posture, consistent with the spirit of the Nouméa Accord.

New Caledonia’s first pro-independence Senator Robert Xowie speaks before the French Senate on 2 April 2024 - Photo screenshot Sé

‘Point of no return has not been reached yet’

“The point of no return has not been reached yet. We can still avoid lighting that spark which could inflame the whole situation”, Xowie said at the tribune.

He also called on the French Prime Minister’s office, once directly in charge of New Caledonia’s matters, to come back to the fore on those issues.

The ten-year uninterrupted residency condition was described by the government as “a reasonable compromise”, Darmanin’s delegate minister for Overseas Marie Guévenoux told the Senate on Tuesday.

While apologising for Darmanin’s absence, she told the Upper House those new self-imposed calendar challenges due to the change of implementation process would be hard to meet despite assurances earlier presented by the Senate.

She said there were provisions in the initial draft that would have allowed the government to react more quickly by way of decree in suspending the provincial elections and even postponing them once again to as far as “November 2025”.

French delegate minister for overseas Marie Guévenoux speaks before the French Senate on 2 April 2024 - Photo screenshot Sé

Waiting for a local, inclusive political agreement

After the Senate’s endorsement of the modified amendment, the text is however far from the end of its legislative journey: it is now due for debate before the National Assembly (Lower House) on 13 May.

If it passes again, its legislative journey is not finished yet as it has to be endorsed sometime in June 2024 by the French Congress, which is a gathering of both Upper and Lower Houses by a required majority of three-fifths.

Tensions high back in Nouméa

During debates on Tuesday, Senators often alluded to the recent radicalisation from both the pro-independence and pro-French parties.

Last week, the two antagonist tendencies held two demonstrations and marches at the same time, both in downtown Nouméa, only a few hundred meters away from each other.

Thousands, on each side, have held banners and flags opposing the electoral changes on one side and supporting them on the other side.

There was also a clear escalation in the tone of speeches held, notably on the “loyalists” (pro-France).

Part of their protest last Thursday was also to denounce a series of government-imposed taxes, including one on fuel (which has since been withdrawn after a series of blockades) and the other on electricity (to avoid bankruptcy for local power company Enercal)

Last month, “loyalists” members walked out of New Caledonia’s “collegial” government, saying they regarded their pro-independence party colleagues as “illegitimate”.

On the local scene, over the past few months, New Caledonia has been facing the very real effects of an economic crisis for its crucial nickel industry.

One of the three nickel mining plants has been temporarily shut down and the other two are facing a similarly bleak future, putting at risk thousands of jobs.

Paris has put on the table a rescue plan worth over two hundred million Euros to bail out New Caledonia’s nickel industry, provided it engages in stringent reforms to lower its production costs, but the signing, initially scheduled to take place by the end of March, has still not happened.

Later this week, New Caledonia’s congress is due to meet specifically on the matter to authorise President Louis Mapou to do so.

One strong opponent to the amendment’s vote this week, Mélanie Vogel (Greens and Solidarity caucus) told the House she believed if the amendment was forced through “we are getting ready to break the conditions that made a return to civil peace possible”.

She and others from all sides of the House also supported the idea of some kind of a delegation to foster the conclusion of talks for the much-expected successor agreement to the Nouméa Accord.

During the first half of the 1980s, New Caledonia was the scene of a civil war between pro and anti-independence sides which only end after the signing of the “Matignon-Oudinot” Accords in 1988.

The Nouméa Accord followed in 1998.

“We’re all waiting for this inclusive agreement to arrive, but for the time being, it’s not there. So this (constitutional amendment), for now, is the least bad solution”, Senator Philippe Bonnecarrère (Centrist Union) told the House.

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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