French government triggers process for defining new status for New Caledonia

Pro-independence parties refrain from taking part as they consider course of events since 2021 referendum to be illegitimate

Borne speaks after the meeting.
Borne speaks after the meeting. Author: Gouvernement de la France
French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne said that “process of defining a project for New Caledonia” has begun on 28 October after she met with representatives of New Caledonian unionist parties and groups, a meeting not attended by pro-independence forces.

Borne announced that working groups will be formed to define this new project from November 2022 on. The task should be completed by mid-2023.

The groups will deal with a new institutional setup, equal opportunities and social cohesion, economic development, nickel, energy sovereignty and ecological transition, food sovereignty and housing, common identity values and reconciliation, and finally, regional integration. On the institutional setup, an “ad hoc political format” will be established, Borne said.

The prime minister called for “learning” from lessons of recent decades at a time “when a period of transition is opening up”. She further announced that her government would maintain contacts so that “all political partners” would participate in the process.

The French government wants the working groups to involve both unionist and pro-independence forces. Paris admits that without the participation of both blocs, the process will not work.

The search for a new status for New Caledonia follows the holding of three independence referendums in 2018, 2020, and 2021. While the first two involved all political sensibilities, the third was boycotted by the pro-independence camp, which had called for its postponement due to the social impact of the covid pandemic.

Faced with the French government’s refusal to postpone it, pro-independence FLNKS called for a boycott of the vote. The result was a 96.5 per cent vote against independence, but only with a 44 per cent turnout. Pro-independence parties thus claim that the referendum was neither valid nor legitimate.

Meeting without pro-independence supporters

Prime minister Borne announced the above developments just after the first meeting of the so-called Partners’ Convention on the Institutional Future of New Caledonia. The meeting brought together the French government with leaders of New Caledonia’s unionist parties and members of New Caledonian civil society.

As said, no pro-independence delegation attended the meeting —neither from the FLNKS coalition nor from any of the parties that make it up. Pro-independence forces, in disagreement with the current course of the political process after the third referendum was not postponed, consider that everything derived from it has no political validity. Independence parties thus argue that New Caledonia’s decolonisation cannot be resolved under such framework.

This is the reason why pro-independence parties do not want now to get involved in the drafting of a new autonomy statute or any other formula involving the final integration of New Caledonia into France. The FLNKS wants to reposition the debate in the realm of decolonisation and full independence —one of its component parties, the Palika, has proposed that the boycotted referendum be repeated in 2024.

Unionist parties, on the other hand, say New Caledonians have already voted three times: the decision to remain in France, they argue, has been made and is final.

French government sought referendum in 2023

The French government also wants to hold a new referendum —this time not to ask again on independence, but to validate the outcome of the process that Borne has today declared as triggered.

The intention of the former Minister for Overseas France, Sébastien Lecornu, was for such a vote to be held in June 2023. Now, however, with pro-independence parties out of the process, the timetable has changed and the date of mid-2023 has become, Borne said, the end of the working groups’ work.

Current French Minister of the Interior and Overseas France Gérald Darmarin has admitted too that “it is clear” that “talks cannot be closed or make progress without the pro-independence supporters.”

Meanwhile, unionist parties want to seize the opportunity to do away with the notion of the frozen electoral body. Three different electoral lists coexist in New Caledonia: a general one for the French, European, and municipal elections; a more restricted one for provincial elections; and finally another, also restricted, for the three independence referendums.

The unionist camp considers that these restrictions —which favoured a certain balance between unionist and pro-independence voters by excluding part of the population that arrived more recently from the metropole— no longer make sense, once the three referendums have been held. Pro-independence parties oppose changes to the lists, and always for the same reason —the decolonisation process is not satisfactorily completed in their view.