The French Senate is studying a new statute for New Caledonia

Work has begun in Paris on a new status for New Caledonia after three referendums on independence from France failed to give the Kanak people their longed-for emancipation.

French and New Caledonian flags.

Registered on the UN decolonization list since 1986, New Caledonia’s quest for independence was concretized by the Matignon agreements of 1988, then by the Nouméa agreement of 1998, giving the territory three decades of peace but leaving him in limbo.

The anti-independence camp took the three no votes in the referendum as the democratic expression of the electorate to remain in France.

The independence camp sees the rejection of full sovereignty at the ballot box as the failure of the Nouméa Accord to entice established French settlers to join it in forming a new nation.

The challenge is for the leaders of New Caledonia and the French government to reconcile these two positions in a new arrangement.

By inviting academics to define the parameters of a possible succession agreement, the law commission of the French Senate has taken a first step towards a new statute.

This will be followed next week when a Senate delegation travels to New Caledonia for a week-long information tour, seeking views on the expectations of local leaders.

A key question is to what extent the provisions of the Noumea Accord are embedded in defining the identity of the people of New Caledonia, their institutions and their powers.

The Accord stipulates that the transfer of power is irreversible, which is enshrined in the French constitution.

But a debate has begun over whether the terms of the Nouméa accord are provisional until a lasting solution is found or whether they are meant to be transitional until the emancipation of the Kanak people is achieved. .

In the immediate aftermath of last December’s referendum, France’s overseas minister, Sébastien Lecornu, set June 2023 as the target date for a new statute, which would then be put to a vote in New Caledonia.

Sebastien Lecornu

Sébastien Lecornu, French Overseas Minister
Photo: AFP or licensors

With just over 96% of votes against independence, the president of the South Province Sonia Backes declared that the question of New Caledonia belonging to France no longer arose.

Backes said the sad dreams of independence at the cost of ruin, exclusion and misery had been shattered on the soul, resilience and love of Loyalist pioneers for New Caledonia.

The referendum, however, was boycotted by separatists after unsuccessfully asking Paris to postpone the vote due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic – mainly on the indigenous Kanak population.

Pro-independence parties said they would not recognize the result, calling it illegitimate and not reflecting the people’s desire to be decolonized.

Leading pro-independence politician Daniel Goa said the pro-independence camp would not take part in any discussion about reintegrating New Caledonia into France.

He said that “the Caledonian Union had nothing to negotiate except to listen and discuss the process of emancipation which will lead irreversibly to sovereignty”.

Leader of the Caledonian Union, Daniel Goa

Head of Union Caledonienne Daniel Goa
Photo: AFP

According to Professor Géraldine Giraudeau of the University of Perpignan, the Kanaks’ right to self-determination had not disappeared with the result of the referendum.

Giraudeau told the Senate Law Commission that it was an essential and inalienable international right, also recognized by France.

She cited various decolonization arrangements that could be considered, such as those found in Pacific island countries and the Caribbean involving New Zealand, the United States and the Netherlands.

Senator Jean-Pierre Sueur declared that it was not in the French “legal culture” to envisage an assembly with a State associated with France, adding that this would suppose a certain independence of the partner country.

France, however, recognizes the Kanak people as the only other than the French within the confines of the republic – the others are defined as populations.

New Caledonia is also the only territory under French control where the census is authorized to classify ethnicity – a practice prohibited in the rest of France.

The Nouméa Accord created New Caledonian citizenship, granted to indigenous Kanaks and French citizens who, as of 1998, had lived in New Caledonia for at least ten years.

This produced restricted voters lists for referenda and provincial elections.

With the end of the Noumea Accord, the anti-independence camp wants restrictions removed and lobbying is underway to give full voting rights to the more than 40,000 French residents, who are on the general list used for national elections.

Pressure from the anti-independence side is for this to change before the planned 2023 vote for a new status and before the 2024 elections.

From the Kanaks’ point of view, any change in role is unacceptable because it would destroy the protections they had secured against marginalization through immigration from France.

Professor Mathias Chauchat from the University of New Caledonia

Professor Mathias Chauchat from the University of New Caledonia
Photo: RNZ Pacific / Walter Zweifel

Professor Mathias Chauchat of the University of New Caledonia urged the law commission not to touch the lists, warning that “the opening of the electoral lists is not compatible with civic peace”.

The challenges are considerable.

Lecornu said the referendum date for a new statute would be June 2023, but law commission chairman Francois-Noël Buffet said that was just a statement from a minister who has no legal basis and does not bind anyone.

The Noumea Accord provides that in the event of three no’s, the political partners will meet to examine the situation thus created.

It also indicates that in the absence of a new political arrangement, the configuration decided in 1998 would remain in force.

He adds that there is no turning back because “irreversibility” is guaranteed by the Constitution.

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