‘We must not ethnicise the events’ – France on New Caledonia crisis

The French Ambassador to Vanuatu and Solomon Islands has rejected claims there is a military operation in New Caledonia, saying “articles, commentaries and fake news portraying the riots as one community against another just simplify and distort reality”.

On 7 June, Vanuatu’s Council of Chiefs, the Malvatumauri, led a demonstration in front of the French Embassy in Port Vila to raise their concerns about the situation in New Caledonia – which has led to eight deaths and mass destruction of property and businesses – and submitted a petition.

On Wednesday, the top French diplomat in the country, Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, released a five-point statement, first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post, to respond to the demands expressed in the petition.

Vilmer doubled down that the actions of France in New Caledonia is consistent with the United Nations Decolonisation Committee (C24) and adheres to the principles of the 1998 Nouméa Accord.

“Decolonisation cannot be reduced to independence,” he said.

“In accordance with democratic principles and the constant will of the people, who have been consulted three times since 2018, and who have therefore been able to exercise their right to self-determination, New Caledonia remains part of France.

“Today, as a result of the decolonisation process engaged in 1988, New Caledonia enjoys a high degree of autonomy, with the local Government and the provinces having all powers except those of a sovereign nature (defence, security, currency, for instance) and those they have not asked to be transferred (rules governing the administration of local authorities, higher education and research, audiovisual communication).”

Vilmer said the third and final referendum that was partially boycotted “was the choice of the independentist parties”. However, boycotting did not invalidate the referendum, he added.

“The legitimacy of this vote has not been called into question by the UN and the independentist parties participated to the general elections organised right after.”

The Pacific Islands Forum, which has expressed its concerns about the situation in New Caledonia, has said it is ready “to facilitate and provide a neutral space for all parties to come together in the spirit of the Pacific Way”.

The immediate former PIF secretary general Henry Puna had also called out France of being “disrespectful” to the Kanak custom in the lead up to the third referendum.

The Melanesian Spearhead Group and the Vanuatu government have also released statements, calling for the “urgent need…to discuss a way forward”.

“These events could have been avoided if the French government had listened,” the MSG chair and Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai said in a statement last month.

This photograph taken on December 12, 2021 shows ballots reading

But Vilmer, in his statement, has questioned: “what can one say to those who believe that the process described above is invalid because only the Kanaks should have taken part, as the only legitimate people?”

“That the 1998 Nouméa Accord – which was signed by all stakeholders, including the pro-independence parties – establishes the existence of a dual legitimacy: not only that of the Kanak people as the first occupants, whose identity and cultural heritage have been recognised and promoted, but also that of other communities ‘who live in the territory [and] have acquired, through their participation in the building of New Caledonia, a legitimacy to live there and to continue to contribute to its development. They are essential to its social equilibrium and to the functioning of its economy and social institutions’.

“This is an important point: it means that, together with the Kanaks (41.2 percent of the population according to the 2019 census), not only Europeans (24 percent), but also Wallisians and Futunans (8.3 percent) and many other communities (Tahitians, Indonesians, Ni-Vanuatu, Vietnamese, Chinese, etc. accounting together for 8 percent) have made Caledonia what it is today.”

He said the Nouméa Accord also presents decolonisation as an objective consisting in founding “a new sovereignty, shared in a common destiny”, adding that “Common, that is, for all the above-mentioned populations, together”.

He said a New Caledonian, who has always lived and worked there and contributed to New Caledonia’s development, “is fully part of this community, no matter the origins of his or her ancestors”.

“We must be careful not to ethnicise the events in New Caledonia,” he said.

“Many articles, commentaries and fake news portraying the riots as one community against another just simplify and distort reality.

“Since 1988 and the first Matignon-Oudinot agreements, followed by the Nouméa agreement in 1998, a continuous dialog has been carried out leading to the setup of new institutions, the transfer of meaningful power to local governing bodies, the acknowledgement of the Kanak identity and promotion of Kanak culture, and to policies dedicated to the social and economic rebalancing.”

He said dialogue remains France’s priority.

“The political path remains to be invented to continue building this “common destiny” in a more inclusive and peaceful way.

“France will continue to work in the coming months with regional partners including Vanuatu, the Melanesian spearhead group, and the Pacific Island Forum, in order to achieve this dialogue essential to the future of New Caledonia.”

French President Emmanuel Macron speaking to the media upon arriving in New Caledonia for a two-day visit.

Kanak inequality

Vilmer admitted that “there are indeed discrepancies” regarding discrimination faced by indigenous Kanaks.

He said poor outcomes in the standard of living, access to employment and education for the Kanaks “is a statistically documented fact” which France has taken steps to correct.

His listed almost a dozen initiatives that he said was aimed at reducing the inequalities faced by the Kanak population.

These include the redistribution of tax revenues between provinces; executive training; a mining and metallurgy policy (saying contrary to popular belief, the French state has no jurisdiction over the extraction, processing or export of nickel; these powers have all been transferred to local authorities; financial aid for business start-ups; a land policy that has considerably increased the surface area of Kanak land; and the defence and promotion of Kanak culture, as demonstrated by the use of local Kanak languages in the education system or the creation of the Tjibaou Cultural Center.

According to Vilmer, these measures have produced results for the Kanak people.

“The GDP/capita gap has narrowed and a Kanak middle and higher classes have developed – but unbalances remain, as President Macron acknowledged on May 24: ‘”rebalancing has not reduced economic and social inequalities, they have even increased’.

“While major progress was achieved when it comes to economic and social progress or access to public service, we need to do better. One must note, however, that this public policy issue is not unique to New Caledonia,” he said.

“In any case, fires, looting, blockades and violence will not solve the problem. On the contrary, by reducing several decades of economic development to ashes, they have undermined the social and economic rebalancing efforts made in favor of the Kanak populations, and destroyed thousands of jobs.”

A weighty report on the implications of the next independence referendum for New Caledonia is expected to be made public next week.

He said the petition submitted by the Malvatumauri called for the immedaite cession of military operations and the withdrawal of troops.

“I must state clearly that there are no military operations in New Caledonia: there are law enforcement operations by internal security forces (police and gendarmerie), to protect the population and public infrastructure, strictly respecting the principle of proportionate use of force.”

The French diplomat said the rioters are armed and have robbed several gun shops.

Their roadblocks paralysed certain neighborhoods and cut off access to the international airport, he said, adding some people were running low on essential food and medcine supplies and access to medical care.

“More than nine hundred businesses have been destroyed or vandalised, thousands of jobs have been lost and the damages are estimated at over a billion euros.

“Law offenders are being dealt with by independent courts following due legal process, therefore there is no reason to call for ‘international independent investigations’.

“Had the State – whose primary responsibility is to protect the population – not rapidly deployed reinforcements, there would have been many more victims, and the socio-economic damage would have been even greater with more lasting effects.”

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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