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Welcome to paradise – but just look how the French have left the place

As hundreds of Australian ex-pats and holiday-makers bunker down in once-beautiful New Caledonia, this little slice of paradise gets more horrific by the day, writes Queensland academic Nicole George.

May 21, 2024, updated May 21, 2024
The streets of once peaceful and beautiful New Caledonia. (Image TheConversation)

The streets of once peaceful and beautiful New Caledonia. (Image TheConversation)

On Sunday afternoon, Australian citizens who have been trapped in New Caledonia were called to a meeting at one of the large hotels in the capital, Noumea.

The meeting was hastily organised and long overdue in the view of many who have been stuck here (including myself) amid the violent unrest that has roiled the French territory. While communication between the Australian High Commission and Australian citizens has not been ideal, the meeting made clear local officials were working to the best of their abilities to develop repatriation strategies.

Their accounts of these strategies, however, suggest that not only is the situation dangerous and logistics complex, another sticking point is the French administration.

We were advised there was a plan to use military aircraft to evacuate Australians from Noumea’s domestic airport. This area has been a hotspot in the current crisis, but Australian officials believed it was more easily accessible than the international airport. This remains closed until the national highway running north of the city can be cleared of debris and made safe.

The Australian High Commission staff told us they had a flight schedule in place and the RAAF aircraft had been fuelled and was on the tarmac ready to depart. There were buses ready to transfer Australians from their hotels.

Yet, the plans were axed at the 11th hour on Sunday when permission to land at the domestic airport did not proceed. It was not clear if this was a decision made by French officials in New Caledonia or in France itself.

About 300 Australians have requested repatriation from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade after violence broke out last week over new voting rules being sought by French authorities in Paris.

French forces began arriving in New Caledonia in recent days and launched a major operation to regain control of the main road to the international airport on Sunday.

On the one hand, a strategic logic explains the French government’s reticence to allow an Australian military plane to land. The optics of a foreign military operation to evacuate travellers could raise questions about the French authorities’ control over the situation and diminish France’s standing in the region.

Neighbouring states in the Pacific have long viewed France as a valued strategic ally capable of balancing China’s increased prominence in the region. The arrival of Australian military plane, however, would draw international attention to the compromised nature of French security in the Pacific.

Domestically, this would also play badly for President Emmanuel Macron, who is under pressure from both sides of politics for the headline-capturing crisis in New Caledonia that his government largely sparked itself.

On the left, figures such as John-Luc Mélenchon, who challenged Macron in the 2022 presidential election, have criticised the damage caused to the principles of the Noumea Accord peace agreement through Macron’s insistence the vote on constitutional changes to expand the territory’s electoral role should proceed last week. This occurred even while tensions were visibly increasing across “le Caillou” (as New Caledonia is also known in France).

The changes could give voting rights to tens of thousands of non-Indigenous residents of New Caledonia, which the Indigenous Kanak population says would dilute the strength of their vote in elections.

In recent days, even those on the right have joined this criticism, distancing themselves from a previously close relationship with Loyalist political elements in New Caledonia who are opposed to independence.

Opposition Leader Marine le Pen has proposed the need for a “solution globale” that goes beyond the narrower focus on residents’ voting status and addresses the chronic economic and social inequalities between the Kanak and non-Indigenous populations.

She has also suggested there now be a fourth referendum on self-determination, long a goal of many Kanaks. Anti-independence factions in the territory, however, oppose such a move, believing the question over independence has been concluded with three recent referendums failing in recent years.

The violence in New Caledonia has been frightening, uncontrolled and devastating for the country. I have written that, for many, this violence is an expression of Kanak youths’ feelings of desperation due to the deep inequalities in the territory.

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Some observers believe it is time to ask critical questions about the legitimacy of a colonial system of government in New Caledonia that allows these inequalities to persist.

As New Caledonia navigated an earlier pro-independence uprising known as les Événements in the 1980s, the Australian government stood with other Pacific nations in the Melanesian Spearhead Group and supported a move to see New Caledonia placed on the UN General Assembly’s list of non-self governing territories. This move required French authorities to establish appropriate forms of self-government for the territory.

The Australian high commissioner at the time was expelled from the territory as a result. Pacific Island states, Australia’s political leadership at the time and even many members of the public saw this stand as the right one to take.

As negotiations proceeded on the 1988 Matignon Peace agreement, which brought a halt to the violence, Australian policy on New Caledonia became more conciliatory towards France and less focused on the decolonisation question.

In recent days, the problem with this position has been clearly exposed. The scale of the rioting and devastation in Noumea demonstrate, yet again, the failures of France to properly address the feelings of discontent among the Kanak population and the profound inequalities that exist in New Caledonia.

It is time for Australia to address the injustice of this situation on our doorstep and revisit its policies of the mid-1980s.

Calls are mounting across the territory and the Pacific region for a new broad-based dialogue between all of New Caledonia’s communities to take place in the territory, rather than in Paris as Macron has proposed.

This is seen by local and regional political and civil society leaders as critical to the achievement of peace. For leaders such as Mark Brown, the outgoing chair of the Pacific Islands Forum and the Cook Islands prime minister, reviving the prospect of full territorial sovereignty can only enhance this cause.

As a nation that advocates internationally for democratic principles – and that publicly states its affinity for the Pacific family – Australia should no longer stay quiet on this question. This week shows why it must shift its foreign policy to support New Caledonia’s decolonisation as a matter of urgency.

Nicole George is Associate Professor in Peace and Conflict Studies, The University of Queensland. This article first appeared in The Conversation and is republished here under Creative Commons Licence
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