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Anarchy in Kanaky? What the French elections mean for New Caledonia … and Australia

At the Senat Coutumier in Noumea both the tricolour and the Kanak flags are still floating. Photo: Marie M'Balla-Ndi

There’s no doubt that French President Nicolas Sarkozy needs the votes of the far right in the second round run off of the French elections this weekend.

In the first round, right wing Front National candidate Marine Le Pen secured 17.9% of the vote; left winger Jean-Luc Melenchon 11.1%. In the run-off this Sunday, the stakes have never been higher for Sarkozy.

But in a far-flung former colony in the Pacific, the stakes are just as high, if not higher. The French territory of New Caledonia is scheduled to undertake an act of self determination between 2014 and 2019 – under the Noumea Accords of 1998.

The Kanaks and the Caldoches

New Caledonia is a mere 1400 km east of Brisbane – that’s 300 km closer to Brisbane than Cairns. Paris, on the other hand, is 16,000km away.

The population of some 250,000 people comprises the Kanak people – the indigenous Melanesian minority at 44%; the Caldoches, permanent French settlers who are the legacy of New Caledonia’s history as a penal colony, and Metros, administrative functionaries from metropolitan France who are short term residents. Together, the Caldoches and Metros make up some 34% of the population. Pacific Islanders from other French Pacific territories make up the rest.

Agitation by the Kanaks for independence – a nation they called Kanaky - in the 80s saw bloodshed in the colony, and two agreements: the Matignon Accords (1988) followed by the Noumea Accords in 1998. These allowed for a self determination process by the people – Kanaks and Caldoches together. Given France’s post-war record on decolonisation – such as in Asia and Africa – we remain pessimistic about the ability the Fifth Republic to allow and manage any transition to independence, let alone a peaceful one.

Presidential preference and politics

Sarkozy’s preference is for New Caledonia to remain part of France. “Don’t be afraid of the French Republic”, Sarkozy told New Caledonians on his first, and possibly last, visit to the South Pacific “collectivity” (colony) late last year.

Hollande’s policy is much more hands off: “The President should not have to say what preference he has for the future of New Caledonia,” Hollande told a press conference in France on April 10. Earlier this month the pro-independence party of the Melanesian minority, Le Front de Libération National Kanak et Socialiste, backed a vote for Hollande.

Sarkozy won nearly half the vote in New Caledonia in the first round (49.63%); Hollande 24.9% and Le Pen 11.6%. But voter turnout was extremely low – 55%. Of the 107 electoral districts in France, New Caledonia had the seventh lowest turnout – along with other French colonies: Guyana, French Polynesia, Martinique, Guadeloupe.

In light of the low turnout in the first round, the second round will give a better indication of the future. A win by Sarkozy will strengthen the will of the Caldoches – who oppose independence; a win for Hollande will encourage the pro-independence groups, and potentially also strengthen the resolve of the Caldoches.

Regional stability and independence

With so much at stake, it can seem that independence or anarchy are the only alternatives.

There is a theory that the small island nations in Australia’s northern orbit are an “arc of instability”: Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Timor Leste, and that the West Papuans are restive. To add anarchy in Kanaky to that list would be a foreign policy and defence headache for Australia.

There are certainly very few signs that the Australian foreign policy community – policy makers and academics alike - recognise the incipient threat constituted by New Caledonia. China, Indonesia, Timor, New Guinea get all the attention.

According a Kanak journalist whose identity we have protected, “the autonomy discussion is nothing else than hot air now. We want independence.”

“The Accords provide us the right to choose to be independent and believe me we will not be fooled again after this election. We have been fooled for too long. We will fight for this right and our independence,” she said.

If this option is not on the table, anarchy might well take over for autonomy.

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