Mixed feelings ahead of French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to riot-hit New Caledonia

Analysis – The announcement of French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to riot-hit New Caledonia has been welcomed with mixed feelings and expectations.

Macron left Paris aboard the presidential plane en route to the French Pacific archipelago, which, for the past 10 days, has been hit by a wave of burning, looting and blockades, causing enormous damage to the economy (over four hundred businesses have been destroyed), six dead and hundreds of injuries.

He is expected to arrive on Thursday morning.

With a backdrop of strong polarisation between pro-independence and pro-French parties (and even apparent divisions within those two sides) on the local scene around the issue of independence, some reactions to the announcement have been lukewarm.

Several shades in the pro-France camp

One of the local pro-France (loyalists) leaders Nicolas Mezdorf (who is also an elected MP at the French National Assembly), told local media if Macron’s visit can allow things to progress, “all the better”.

“We will just remain vigilant that the democratic values that we are defending will be upheld in those forthcoming exchanges.”

Mezdorf hoped Macron’s visit would allow the restoration of “a space for dialogue”.

“The question is now to know whether [Macron’s] visit will appease or fuel the pro-independence demonstrations,” he said, adding he still supported the full enactment of a controversial Constitutional Amendment by the French bicameral Congress, which was perceived as the main cause of the current riots.

“Either [Macron] maintains the Congress meeting and we will approve because it’s the right thing to do, or he postpones the meeting ad vitam æternam and we will denounce it.”

He added that withdrawing the controversial amendment would be “crossing the red line … because this would endorse the rioters’ actions”.

The other main leader within the pro-France camp, former French government minister, head of Les Loyalistes party and President of New Caledonia’s Southern province, Sonia Backès, said Macron’s visit was “a strong signal of his personal commitment in this issue”.

“I’m glad that he has accepted to visit, see for himself the situation we are undergoing, restore law and justice and prepare for reconstruction,” she said.

Another pro-France politician, indigenous Kanak, former French Senator and one of the leaders who signed the Nouméa Accord in 1998, Simon Louekhote, welcomed the French President’s initiative to “come in person to install the dialogue mission”, he posted on Facebook.

More moderate New Caledonian pro-France parties, such as Calédonie Ensemble, said Macron’s visit was “a step in the right direction”.

Another National Assembly MP Philippe Dunoyer said Macron’s visit “is very important, just as important as restoring law and order”.

“We need to find a political solution to the chaos New Caledonia is going through.”

Dunoyer also believed members of the “dialogue mission” Macron proposed to “install” should be “highly knowledgeable” of New Caledonia’s issues.

Another moderate pro-France politician, Nouméa Mayor Sonia Lagarde, said she hoped Macron would announce a “pause” in the Constitutional amendment legislative process and not convene the French Congress for a final ratification.

“This pause is necessary to calm everyone and find the proper conditions for a dialogue,” she said in an interview with French public television France 2.

“We just can’t go on like this; things have gone too far.”

(FILES) France's President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech at the Place des Cocotiers in Noumea on July 26, 2023. A government spokeswoman announced May 21, 2024, that France's President Macron will visit riot-hit New Caledonia as looting, arson and deadly gunfire have enveloped the French Pacific territory eight days ago.

During Macron’s last visit to New Caledonia, in more peaceful times, some of the more radical parties within the pro-independence, including the Union Calédonienne (UC), had refused to attend the presidential address delivered on Nouméa’s Place des Cocotiers on 26 July 2023.

Pro-independence camp expects controversial amendment to be withdrawn

A prominent figure of UC and the pro-independence umbrella, the FLNKS, Roch Wamytan, is the current chairman of the local Parliament (the Congress) and one of the pro-independence representatives who also signed the autonomy-loaded Nouméa Accord in 1998.

He denounced the visit saying: “It seems to me that the whole thing is staged.

“The whole country is in chaos and the French President arrives. The format in which he comes to visit is not the proper one, at least, this is my feeling,” he told public broadcaster Nouvelle-Calédonie la 1ère.

He also disapproved of French government ministers Darmanin (Home Affairs and Overseas) and Lecornu (Defence, formerly Overseas) being part of the presidential delegation “because these are ministers whom we have had many difficulties in the past”.

“The real question we are expecting him to answer is whether he will or not withdraw this constitutional amendment so that we can have a clear horizon and discuss things in depth,” he said.

“Things to come later will largely depend on what kind of answer he will provide to this question.”

Another component of the FLNKS umbrella, the UPM (Progressist Union in Melanesia – Union progressiste en Mélanésie), through its President Victor Tutugoro, said he would be willing to meet Macron, hoping that “at least we could obtain the postponing of the constitutional amendment” targeting a change in eligibility rules for voters at local elections.

“We have to give ourselves time and … the right method to move ahead,” he said.

“It’s a good thing that he is coming. It’s up to him to find the right words and attitude to appease things.

“All will depend on what he will announce and the way he will speak to the population, including to those who are still erecting roadblocks and contributing to the rioting.”

Former PM’s analysis

Former French PM Edouard Philippe (2017-2020), on Tuesday said he hoped the French President was coming with announcements that are “up to the expectations”.

“The situation [in New Caledonia] is terribly sad and dangerous. France has a complicated rapport to its colonial history; it has the opportunity to find an original solution,” Philippe said, adding the “priority of all priorities” was to reach a political agreement between pro-France and pro-independence local parties.

This agreement, he said, would have to find a political “space”.

“We need to invent the next framework.

“We just can’t ask ourselves every second year, every five years, if we want to remain French, while bearing in mind that the Kanak people’s aspiration for independence and self-determination will never disappear.

“So we have to find an agreement between the long-term stability and this aspiration. If we deny this [aspiration], there will always be violent repetitions.”

Who will be part of the mission?

The makeup of Macron’s delegation also seemed to be a cause for anticipated concern.

Aboard the French presidential plane are Macron’s Minister for Home Affairs and Overseas, his deputy (delegate Minister for Overseas) Marie Guévenoux, Defence Minister Sébastin Lecornu (who is also a former Minister for Overseas), among others.

“I will be honoured to leave tonight [Tuesday, Paris time] with Minister Marie Guévenoux and Army minister Sébastien Lecornu”, Darmanin told the French National Assembly on Tuesday afternoon Paris time during question time.

Speaking during the same Parliamentary session, French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal explained Macron, while in New Caledonia, would meet local stakeholders, including politicians, as well as players in the economic, social, and religious fields.

But the details of the dialogue mission members remained sketchy at this stage, including on those members who would give it a bipartisan character.

So far, names earlier mooted of high-level bipartisan personalities, such as former socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin (who signed the Nouméa Accord in 1998 on behalf of France) or Edouard Philippe, have not been cited as yet.

An alternative interpretation would be that Macron, bringing with him ministers from his current government, does not necessarily mean that they would be part of this “dialogue mission”, which the French President said he would “install”. His office said the full list of the mission would be published “during his stay” in New Caledonia, which is expected to last not more than 24 hours.

It was not clear whether all components of New Caledonia’s political spectrum would be ready to attend a roundtable with the French president.

Concerning the likelihood of the controversial constitutional amendment – which purports to introduce new eligibility rules for voters and local provincial elections and allow an additional estimated 25,000 people to cast their vote after 10 years of uninterrupted residency – being withdrawn, or the gathering of the French Congress (a special joint sitting of both the Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament) – supposed to give the text a final endorsement – being adjourned sine die, it also being mooted that the required Congress majority of three-fifths was becoming increasingly elusive.

Macron could therefore decide to reduce the pressure on local politicians to allow them the necessary time to restore dialogue and arrive at a larger consensus on New Caledonia’s political future.

Initially, the deadline for local politicians to present a “comprehensive agreement” was 1 July 2024.

Macron is expected to land in New Caledonia in the early hours of Thursday, Nouméa time.

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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