Category Archives: New Caledonia

France – The 2017 Presidential Election in the French Pacific Territories

Delivering a speech in French Polynesia during a visit to the French Pacific territories last year, outgoing President François Hollande said: “France is everywhere in the world. And when they say we go to the end of the world, I say: ‘No. We go to the end of France’.” France’s global footprint due to its overseas territories is extensive – les départements et collectivités d’outre-mer, as they are known, give France a presence in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans, and the largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the world. Geographically remote and with relatively small populations, France’s overseas territories are often ignored in presidential elections, but the recent unrest in Guiana has brought them to the fore this year.

The three Pacific territories – New Caledonia, French Polynesia, and Wallis and Futuna – have a combined population of under 600,000, less than 1% of the total French population. Residents of the territories have full French citizenship, including the right to vote in French presidential (as well as European) elections, and each territory elects representatives to the French National Assembly and Senate. In French presidential elections, there is traditionally low turnout in the overseas territories. The French Pacific is no exception; French Polynesia recorded turnouts in 2012 of just 49% in round one and 59% in round two. Low turnout is perhaps to be expected given the geographical distance involved, although the most remote territory, Wallis and Futuna, usually records the highest turnout. Another factor is the deliberate boycotting of presidential elections by pro-independence groups in New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

Independence remains a very salient issue in the French Pacific in this year’s presidential election, with a referendum on independence scheduled to be held in New Caledonia in 2018. Anti-independence groups in New Caledonia generally align themselves with the major French conservative party (now The Republicans), while those pro-independence groups that do involve themselves with French politics tend to back the Socialist Party, in the belief that they are more sympathetic to the secessionist cause. While Nicolas Sarkozy – with a notoriously anti-independence stance in regards to New Caledonia – won significant support in the first round conservative primary there, François Fillon still won far more support in New Caledonia during the primaries than in the other French territories, winning 78% of the second-round vote in New Caledonia (Fillon lost in both Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia, in the latter winning just a 5% share in the first round). After the ‘Penelopegate’ scandal which has threatened to sink his candidacy, several key political figures of the right in New Caledonia withdrew their support for Fillon, but others have rallied behind the candidate.

This is important, as the success or failure of French presidential aspirants in the territories often says more about local politics than national politics. The endorsements of local political leaders are often crucial to the outcome – which is watched closely by observers for what it says about the popularity of these local figures, rather than the candidates themselves. For example, in the Isle of Pines in New Caledonia, Hilarion Vendegou – chief, local mayor, and a New Caledonian representative in the French Senate – endorsed Fillon in the primaries who went on to win both rounds in the locality easily.

In French Polynesia, there has been much horse-trading amongst political leaders on who to support. Gaston Flosse – a dominant figure in French Polynesian politics for over 30 years, now barred from holding public office until 2019 due to a conviction for corruption – initially supported Sarkozy, then Fillon, before eventually endorsing Marine Le Pen. Claiming this was on the basis of her support for greater autonomy for French Polynesia, he stressed this was not an endorsement of her party, but rather her as an individual. Eduoard Fritch – current President of French Polynesia, and Flosse’s former son-in-law and protégé – initially supported Alain Juppé, and has now backed Fillon despite voicing criticism of his plans to cut public service spending and vagueness on territorial issues (Fillon has said the cuts will not affect overseas territories).

Meanwhile, former French Polynesian President and the most prominent pro-independence figure in the territory, Oscar Temaru, attempted to stand in the presidential election to raise awareness of the pro-independence cause in French Polynesia. While he did not reach the threshold of endorsements needed to run, he gained the most support from elected officials in both French Polynesia and New Caledonia of any aspiring candidate. After failing to secure enough support to run, he advised his supporters to boycott the election.

Of course, neither of the two highest-polling candidates going into the first round of polling are candidates from the two major political parties, meaning the political landscape – and what this means for the French Pacific – is uncharted territory. Le Pen visited the Pacific in 2013, and has voiced support for greater territorial autonomy and compensation for nuclear testing, as well as promising a greater focus on territorial issues. The National Front’s deputy leader visited the Pacific in December 2016 and promised to respect the provisions for an independence referendum for New Caledonia under the 1998 Noumea Accord. More recently, Le Pen has responded to the protests in Guiana, emphasising her key campaign messages on law and order, security and immigration. While the party has made a concerted effort to attract voters from the territories in this election, they have historically polled far lower in the Pacific territories than in mainland France (although significantly higher in New Caledonia than in either French Polynesia or Wallis and Futuna).

Macron’s understanding of territorial issues has seemed shaky at times; in March, he wrongly referred to Guiana as an “island”. On recent visits to the territories of Réunion and Mayotte he has, however, promised subsidised airfares to increase links between the territories and mainland France, as well as an ambitious economic development plan. His position on New Caledonia’s political future is unclear; as Philippe Gomès, former President of New Caledonia and current representative in the French National Assembly,has said: “We do not really know his DNA.”

Whoever wins the 2017 presidential election will play a key role in determining future political statuses in the French Pacific. They will have to deal with the impending referendum on independence in New Caledonia as well as calls for greater autonomy intensifying in French Polynesia. Thus, the ramifications of the 2017 vote will extend right to the end of the France.

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.