Category Archives: New Caledonia

New Caledonia – As Pro-France Unity Disintegrates, What Next for New Caledonian Politics in the Lead-Up to the Independence Referendum?

The election of June 2014 set the stage for the upcoming independence referendum, due to take place in the next three years. The subsequent collapse of the Government six months later put on display the deep divisions amongst the pro-France political parties, who according to one pro-independence politician “apart from wanting to stay with France…cannot agree on anything.”[1] After the fall of the Ligeard Government, subsequent attempts to re-elect an administration have failed. Cynthia Ligeard, leader of the pro-France party Front pour l’Unité (FPU) and New Caledonia’s second female President, has continued in a caretaker capacity since her government fell in mid-December.

In New Caledonia, power-sharing provisions are in place to ensure multiple parties are represented in the Government. Crucially, any party’s resignation from the Government triggers its fall. Neither the Government nor Congress has the power to call a new election; that lies with the French High Commission, which has shown its unwillingness to call fresh elections in the way it dealt with a previous crisis in 2011.

New Caledonia is a divided society, with residents split between those favouring independence – primarily the indigenous Kanak community, who make up about 40 per cent of the population – and those who advocate remaining part of France – mainly the caldoche (New Caledonian-born residents of French descent) and French-born migrants. A protracted struggle for self-determination led to a peace agreement, signed in the late 1980s, that guaranteed a future referendum on independence. The Noumea Accord, signed in 1998, delayed the referendum by 15-20 years. This means that, in the absence of another agreement to again delay the referendum, the independence question will be decided by 2018.

The Accord also granted New Caledonia a unique political status in the French Constitution, and established new political institutions: three provincial assemblies and a Congress. Elections are held every five years. The members of the Government are elected by Congress according to the proportion of seats held by each party; the Government then elects a President and Vice-President.[2]

Historically, the primary political cleavage in New Caledonia has been over the issue of independence. The power-sharing mechanisms set out in the Noumea Accord are intended to promote collegiality and cooperation between the two sides of the debate, although resignations have happened before, most significantly in 2011. That crisis was prompted when the French Government, on advice from the pro-France politician Pierre Frogier, mandated that the Kanak flag be flown alongside the French flag on municipal buildings in New Caledonia. This move spurred protests from both side of politics, amongst those who supported a new flag to represent New Caledonia, and when some municipalities refused to fly the Kanak flag, pro-independence party Union Calédonienne (UC) resigned from Government in protest. In response, pro-France party Calédonie Ensemble (CE) countered with another resignation to bring down the next government formed. Two more governments fell before the crisis was resolved.[3]

In response to these events, the French Government passed legislation in its National Assembly to prevent similar crises in New Caledonia. It introduced an 18-month grace period for any Government elected following a Cabinet resignation. The move eliminated the threat of tit-for-tat resignations.

Which brings us to December 2014, when the Ligeard government fell. The resignation of the CE delegation was triggered by a debate over fiscal policy, but is emblematic of the deep divides within the pro-France side of politics. The influence of the RPCR (Rassemblement pour une Calédonie dans la Republique, which renamed itself the R-UMP in 2002), the predominant party in pro-France politics since the 1970s, has been on the wane for some time, and their loss of the presidency in 2004 to breakaway group Avenir Ensemble (AE) was a significant turning point in New Caledonian politics. The other side of politics has also seen splintering amongst its factions, with multiple lists of pro-independence parties competing against each other in each post-Noumea Accord election.

The current political crisis is evident of a shift in New Caledonian politics. Firstly, while the independence question remains salient, it is not enough to hold the pro-France factions together to dominate territorial politics, with conflicts arising amongst the new, post-RPCR generation of politicians. Secondly, the changes made following the 2011 crisis have made the next decision on the presidency critical – and perhaps impossible. While the French administration had hoped the 18-month grace period would prevent political crises from occurring, in this case it has stalled the process of electing the resignation-proof new President. A nominee needs six votes in the 11-seat Government to win. The three pro-France parties represented in the Government hold six seats in total; the remaining five seats are occupied by pro-independence politicians who have been abstaining from the presidential votes, content to watch the pro-France factions fight amongst themselves.

With the current political crisis dragging on, a coalition with the pro-independence side seems like the way out of political deadlock for either the FPU or the CE. With five seats in Government, however, the pro-independence side holds significant power in this scenario. Resolution of this crisis may see, in the lead-up to the referendum on independence, a first for New Caledonia – a pro-independence President.

[1] Radio New Zealand International, ‘Blame game over New Caledonia government collapse’, 17 December 2014, www.radionz.co.nz/international

[2] Nic Maclellan (2009) ‘New Caledonia’, in Stephen Levine (ed.), Pacific Ways: Government and Politics in the Pacific Islands, Wellington: Victoria University Press, pp. 130-140.

[3] David Chappell (2013) ‘Recent Challenges to Nation-Building in Kanaky New Caledonia’ State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Discussion Paper no. 1, Canberra: ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University.