Australian policy observers are focused on the current visit by President Emmanuel Macron’s first visit to Australia. But there will be another first immediately afterwards: his visit to the French territory of New Caledonia across the Coral Sea.
The purpose of Macron’s visit is to lend his personal support to the preparations under way for the long-promised independence referendum to be held November 4. The referendum brings to an end the 1998 Noumea Accord, which, together with predecessor agreements, has presided over 30 years of stability and economic growth. While demonstrations and protests are normally part of the scene when French presidents visit New Caledonia, emotions are likely to be running particularly high during this visit.
Macron has timed his visit – from May 3 to 5 – very carefully to coincide with three critical anniversaries. The first is the May 5, 1988 massacre at Gossanah Cave, on the island of Ouvéa in the Loyalty Islands. This was a watershed event of the bloody 1980s civil war over independence, when frustrated Kanak independence supporters attacked a police station and took French police hostages in a cave.
The resultant French crackdown ended in 21 deaths – 19 Kanak and two French police officers. It led the French state finally to address the underlying concerns it had mishandled for years: the Kanaks’ desire that their identity be recognised, and the desire of supporters of independence – mainly Kanaks – for an independence vote. French efforts resulted in the signature of the 1988 Matignon Accords, which promised a referendum by 1998.
Just one year after the Gossanah Cave deaths, on May 4, 1989, independence leaders Jean-Marie Tjibaou and his colleague Yéwéni Yéwéni were assassinated by one of their own supporters for having signed the Matignon Accords and agreed to its compromises.
The last and most important anniversary being marked by Macron’s visit is May 5, 1998, when all political parties in New Caledonia signed on to the Noumea Accord, which extended the promise of a referendum by 20 years, to November 2018, and, crucially, recognised the trauma of colonisation on the Kanak people in its preamble.
By choosing to visit at this time, Macron is making a strong symbolic gesture towards reconciliation, not shirking the Gossanah Cave event, but acknowledging the real contributions of the Matignon and Noumea Accords to the present shape of New Caledonia, and hopefully to its future.
During his visit, Macron will visit the capital, Noumea; the Kanak heartland in the Northern Province at Koné; and Ouvéa itself in the Loyalty Islands. Reflecting the ongoing sensitivities around the milestone events that his visit marks, word of his visit to Ouvéa led to some Kanak parties opposing a visit by Macron to Gossanah Cave. At last report, Macron wasn’t planning to go to the cave itself. He has also chosen a neutral venue, the Nouville Theatre, for his major speech, on Saturday, May 5.
France won't play favourites
Also reflecting heightened local sensitivities, as political party leaders – both pro-France and pro-independence – meet under the auspices of a new Dialogue Group on the Future, Macron’s spokesman has indicated that the president won’t favour either side in the referendum preparation process, reiterating that it’s for Caledonians to choose their future, and that he’s "very attached" to respecting their choice.
Macron’s approach during his visit will therefore be carefully calibrated. All parties are positioning themselves for the discussions under way about the future of New Caledonia after the referendum, whatever the result might be.
Recently, some pro-France parties withdrew from the core Committee of 10 leaders group that was fostered by Macron’s Prime Minister, Édouard Philippe, on the grounds that the group was giving too much attention to the effects of colonisation on the Kanak people in its draft Charter of Common Values. Philippe could only draw those groups back in by re-framing the group as the Dialogue Group on the Future and nominating a personal representative with conservative connections attractive to Caledonian loyalists.
In return, on the pro-independence side, in a bid to retain references to the damaging effects of colonisation in the Charter of Values, members of the Kanak Customary Senate, an advisory body created by the Noumea Accord, have called on Macron to declare colonisation in New Caledonia a ‘crime against humanity’, as he had labelled French colonisation in Algeria in 2017 when he was a presidential candidate.
It’s unlikely that Macron will buy into that statement, although he can be expected to defend the spirit of the Noumea Accord in ongoing discussions between local parties. Meanwhile, another group of independence supporters is watching the preparation of electoral lists closely, warning of a possible election boycott if the process isn’t deemed fair.