French mission to New Caledonia unable to solve historic problems

FEB 23, 2024 LISTEN

France sent a high-level delegation to its overseas territory of New Caledonia this week with the aim of negotiating ongoing demands for autonomy, easing economic woes and revamping the penitentiary system. But the visit was met with violence as pro-independence protesters clashed with police.

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti and Overseas Territories Minister Marie Guévenoux travelled to the archepelago in an attempt to improve ties with Paris.

The visit marked Darmanin's sixth attempt to initiate inclusive discussions over the political future of New Caledonia – potentially involving modifications to the French constitution.

On Wednesday Darmanin announced the signing of contracts worth nearly €80 million with New Caledonia's South Province. The deals are intended to improve facilities at the Amédée Island, a key tourist destination off the capital Nouméa that has been badly affected by by erosion.

The next day Dupond-Moretti confirmed the construction of a €500 million penitentiary facility to deal with overcrowding at Nouméa's existing prison, Camp-Est.

The project, financed by the Public Agency for Justice Real Estate, will be the largest investment planned by the French state in New Caledonia.

Its construction will increase the detention capacity in Nouméa from 391 places and 230 cells to 600 places and 550 cells. It's to be ready by 2032.

Angry protests

As the ministers carried out their business in downtown Nouméa, police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd of some 2,000 protesters angry over moves to amend the constitution and revise rules for local elections.

Under the move, the New Caledonian Congress, provinces and government would undergo two substantial changes.

The president of the government would be directly appointed by Congress, whose number of elected representatives would be reduced from 54 to 32, and whose composition would be modified. 

The proportion of elected representatives from the pro-independence Northern Provinces and Loyalty Islands – which have been slightly over-represented since the Nouméa Accord – would be reduced in favour of the Southern Province, in a bid to redress the political imbalance.

No new referendum

The pro-independence movement is upset that the amendment does not set a date for a new vote on self-determination.

Three referendums over a period of five years have all rejected independence.

The territory's indigenous, largely pro-independence Kanaks widely boycotted a December 2021 referendum that voted 97 percent in favour of remaining part of France.

The Kanaks reject the result, arguing the polls should have been delayed due to the Covid pandemic.

New Caledonia, a French colony since 1853, has deep-rooted tensions between the Kanaks and colonial settlers loyal to Paris.

About 40 percent of the population are Kanaks, most of whom support independence. Pro-independence parties, in power since 2017, aim for full sovereignty by 2025.

The South Pacific territory – which lies 1,200 kilometres east of Australia and 20,000 kilometres from Paris – witnessed its first revolt in 1878, not long after the discovery of significant nickel deposits exploited under French colonial rule.

(with newswires)