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Artillery Row

Ballots or bullets in New Caledonia

Democracy is at stake as violence scars the French territory

Seven dead — including two gendarmes — hundreds injured, roads cut off by armed men, an international airport blocked, shortages everywhere. As I write these lines, New Caledonia has been hit by violent riots for almost two weeks. The situation is so serious that the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, has deemed it necessary to visit the island and call in the army to help restore order.

Seven deaths may still seem a relatively low toll, but the population of New Caledonia is only around 270,000. What would we say if, in mainland France, riots had already claimed more than 1,500 lives (to keep the same ratio of deaths to population)? 

Moreover, New Caledonia has almost one firearm for every two inhabitants, compared with less than one for every five inhabitants in the rest of France. Above all, New Caledonia is marked by a culture of violence that the State has never sought to eradicate: not only do New Caledonians have a lot of weapons, but they don’t hesitate to use them, both against each other and against State agents. The homicide rate is consistently five to six times higher than in mainland France.

What is going on in New Caledonia is in fact a low-intensity civil war, which is also an ethnic war, and which could very well quickly turn into a much bloodier conflict, with incalculable consequences for France.

New Caledonia is a group of islands and archipelagos in the Coral Sea, in the southern Pacific Ocean, which France has considered part of its territory since 1853.

This small territory (18,500 km2) is almost 18,000 km from France. From Paris, it takes almost 24 hours to fly to Nouméa, New Caledonia’s main city.

The population of New Caledonia has two main components: on the one hand, the Kanaks, who are the island’s indigenous people, and on the other, the Caldoches, i.e. the Europeans who have settled in New Caledonia since the mid-19th century. There are around 111,000 Kanaks and 74,000 Caldoches. The rest of the population is made up of more recent immigrants from Polynesia, South-East Asia, mainland France, etc.

Politically, New Caledonia is sharply divided in two. On the one hand, there are those in favour of the island’s independence and on the other those who wish to remain French, known as loyalists. The independentists are almost all Kanaks and almost all those who are not Kanaks are loyalists: during the independence ballots, the results by commune show that the percentage of “yes” votes is, with rare exceptions, almost identical to the proportion of Kanaks in the population.

The current violence has its immediate origins in an ongoing project to change New Caledonia’s electoral body, but its roots go much further back. To understand this, we need to go back to the 1980s.

At the beginning of that decade, the demands of the Kanak independence movement, which had begun to emerge around ten years earlier, took a very violent turn. Politicians were assassinated, gendarmes were killed… riots, shootings, hostage-takings, arson, sabotages multiplied until the infamous “Ouvéa hostage-taking”. 

On 22 April 1988, two days before the first round of the French presidential election, around sixty Kanaks attacked a gendarmerie on the island of Ouvéa. Four gendarmes were killed and 26 other soldiers were taken hostage. On the morning of 5 May, army and gendarmerie commandos stormed the cave where the hostages were being held. Two members of the commandos and 19 Kanaks were killed. The hostages were released unharmed.

Following this bloody episode, the independentists finally agreed to sit down at the negotiating table and the talks led to the so-called Matignon Accords (Matignon is the residence of the French Prime Minister), signed on 26 June 1988.

In short, the Matignon Accord provided for a referendum on the question of New Caledonia’s independence to be held at the end of a ten-year transitional period, i.e. in 1998. However, as the deadline approached, the pro-independence faction, sensing that the electoral balance of power was not in their favour, demanded and obtained new conditions.

A new agreement was therefore signed in Nouméa on 5 May 1998, 

The Nouméa Accord created new local institutions that were very favourable to the Kanaks, and provided for the transfer to these institutions of a large number of powers previously exercised by the French state. Essentially, the  State retains only the so-called sovereign powers: justice, public order, defence, currency (including credit and foreign exchange) and foreign affairs.

At the end of this process, the planned referendum would finally be held. But the agreement also stipulated that, if the result were negative (i.e. if the population of New Caledonia chooses to remain French), another referendum would be held, and then a third if the result of the second were also negative. 

Between November 2018 and December 2021, three referendums were therefore held on the island. Each of them ended in a clear victory for the “no” to independence. The last referendum was boycotted by the independentists, on the grounds that they were in mourning following the Covid19 epidemic, but in reality it was an attempt to delegitimise a ballot that they were certain to lose. The turnout was therefore 44 per cent and very few Kanaks voted.

Today, almost 20 per cent of New Caledonia’s citizens are excluded from voting in local elections

In addition, the Caledonian electorate was frozen in 1998. This means that the electoral rolls cannot be revised, which effectively limits the right to vote to people who lived in the archipelago before 1998 and had done so for more than ten years. Today, almost 20 per cent of New Caledonia’s citizens are excluded from voting in local elections, and therefore from taking part in ballots relating to self-determination. 

This provision, which effectively creates dual citizenship on an essentially ethnic basis, is designed to set in stone a demographic balance favourable to the Kanaks, who are the island’s largest “community”.

(In New Caledonia, at the request of the independentists, ethnic statistics are collected by the authorities, something considered absolutely unacceptable in the rest of France…)

In January 2024, the government introduced a constitutional bill aimed at unfreezing the New Caledonian electorate from 1 July 2024, by including citizens who were born in New Caledonia or had been resident there for at least ten years. It was this bill, which still has to be approved by Parliament in June, that sparked off the deadly riots of recent weeks. 

The rationale for this bill is that the 1998 freeze was only a transitional (and highly questionable) concession, designed to allow the self-determination referendums to be held peacefully. But now that the three referendums provided for in the Nouméa Accord have been held, it is impossible to maintain for any longer a provision that is so obviously contrary to democratic principles. Now that New Caledonia has chosen to remain part of the French Republic in three successive referendums, it must return to ordinary electoral law.

the independentists are trying to obtain with bullets what they were unable to obtain with ballots

So the situation in New Caledonia is really quite simple: the violent challenge to the electoral bill is nothing more than an armed challenge to the results of the three referendums. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln’s July 4th Message to Congress, the independentists are trying to obtain with bullets what they were unable to obtain with ballots.

But as Lincoln rightly reminded us in the same speech, in such a case, “No compromise by public servants could in this case be a cure; not that compromises are not often proper, but that no popular government can long survive a marked precedent that those who carry an election can only save the government from immediate destruction by giving up the main point upon which the people gave the election.”

And if the independentists have once again taken up arms, it is because, for four decades, the French state has — no doubt with good intentions but little foresight — given them good reason to believe that this recourse could be effective. 

The 1998 agreement, the result of a first recourse to insurrection, already ratified provisions directly contrary to the principles of republican government: the right of every citizen to consent to the law that governs him, equality of suffrage, government by a constitutional majority. Under this agreement, the Kanaks effectively constitute an electoral aristocracy, enjoying privileges denied to others, and a “yes” to independence is definitive, whereas a ‘no’ vote must be confirmed at least two other times. But why stop there? Since bullets have already achieved so much, why not frankly and definitively replace ballots with bullets? Why stick to three referendums and not resort to violence every time the legal process fails to produce a result you like?

Unlike the French state, the independentists are consistent and know what they want. 

No doubt they have also understood that, in contemporary France, violence often pays off. For example, it should be noted that Emmanuel Macron, who today rules out the idea that “appeasement” in New Caledonia can be achieved by an institutional “step backwards”, began his first term in office, in 2018, by abandoning the Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport project. 

This airport project, which was to be located near Nantes, one of the major cities in the west of France, had been in the pipeline for several decades. It had been approved by Parliament and the local population in referendums, but was fiercely contested by radical environmentalists. They had illegally set up camp on the land on which the airport was to be built, and had made it clear that they were determined to use violence to resist any attempt to remove them.

At Notre-Dame-des-Landes, the legal and democratic process gave way to the use of violence and intimidation on the grounds of “appeasement” and “turning the page”. Is it too much to think that this “marked precedent” is now coming back to haunt Emmanuel Macron in New Caledonia?

The choice before him, and more broadly before the French State, is now very simple: either use all the force necessary to restore law and order in New Caledonia and reintegrate it into the common law of democracy, by abolishing the electoral privilege granted to the Kanaks. Or to continue the policy of concessions that has more or less been followed for 40 years. In which case, after three referendums, it would be tantamount to acknowledging that democratic principles cannot be applied in New Caledonia. 

Democracy presupposes that those who lost the elections agree to be governed until the next elections by those who won, which is only possible if the minority and the majority agree to be subject to a common law. It therefore presupposes that the individuals who make up the minority and those who make up the majority see themselves as belonging to one and the same people, to one and the same body politic.

This would be tantamount to admitting that, from now on, the only possible outcome is the partition of the island along ethnic lines. 

At a time when many French people are anxiously wondering whether France will be able to survive the major demographic upheavals produced by mass immigration over the last fifty years, the stakes could hardly be higher.

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