French Prime Minister visits and reassures New Caledonia

Photo AFP / Lionel Bonaventure

Photo AFP / Lionel Bonaventure

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault arrived in New Caledonia Friday, 26 July, and left today, having seen and reassured New Caledonians about the independence referendum slated to start in 2014. Here on a visit between South Korea and Malaysia, he’s had a packed visit, speaking before Congress, visiting the nickel mine in the North and travelling to Ouvéa (one of the Loyalty Islands). He’s made a number of speeches, congratulating New Caledonia on its reconciliation (following “Les Evenements” of 1988) and reaffirming that the promised independence referendum will come to pass in 2019 at the latest.

With gross inequalities on the island – with significant inequality in income distribution and access to employment, he is reported to have said  that the challenge remains to provide a perspective for the future. But he underlined France’s commitment to the last phase of the Noumea Accord to help organise the independence referendum between 2014 and 2018. He also stated that Paris will remain neutral during the process. A parliamentary delegation is reportedly being sent in September to prepare the work.

Yesterday, Mr. Ayrault called for reconciliation at the Ouvéa cave that was the scene of a hostage-taking that ended in the deaths of 19 separatists, 4 gendarmes and 2 French parachutists in 1988.

“I wanted to be here among those whose mourning, remembrance and reconciliation have shown much promise for the future,” Mr. Ayrault said. “The forgiveness that has happened here is a great lesson for all, and the police and army have done the same on their side. I wish to unite these two memories in the same process of reconciliation and the same willingness to build the future of New Caledonia.”

Naturally, I found this discours very interesting. On the ground, I am not entirely sure that we have reached as much forgiveness and reconciliation as Mr. Ayrault perceives. And I find it extremely curious that we have all been speaking of the beginning of the independence in 2014 – but it seems clear with this visit, that the referendum will be pushed back to 2018 “at the latest”, meaning 2019.  I’ve even read 2022.

With France providing €1.6 billion a year to support New Caledonia’s 250,000 inhabitants, it’ll be interesting to see what local voters will decide whenever it does come to the vote.

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3 thoughts on “French Prime Minister visits and reassures New Caledonia

  1. There is much misconception about New Caledonia becoming independent as well as specifically the timing of the independence referendum. 2018 is the earliest that New Caledonia can become fully independent and it is more likely to be 2022 if at all… Also, given the massive influx of European and other white settlers in the last ten years or so the population right now is closer to 400,000. 250,000 was in the late nineties and should be discarded as a reference. There is and has been a clear majority of the population AGAINST independence from France and it is only a small insignificant number of natives that would take up arms to become independent. Having lived here for three years I personally do not see any road to independence and a lot of the inequality that we see here stems from the unwillingness to work (missing days for weddings, ceremonies, hangovers, illness etc.) The tribal law and customs equate to basically communism or at least a severe form of socialism where one member of the tribe cannot own more than the next member in the tribe… There goes the incentive to work. And when you see the leaders in the North making money out of KNS/SMSP you wonder where that brotherly love/sharing/partage has gone;)

    This is and remains a great country but it can never be independent!

    • Thanks very much for your comments, Martin. Much appreciated. The population of 250,000 is a 2011 estimate and it was quoted on French news (TF1) last night as well. I agree that the independence is a complex and complicated issue, as will be the process. Apparently the Noumea Accord stipulates that New Caledonia will be independent – it is only a matter of time. The question is the form this independence will take, and the role France will play going forward. It will be interesting to watch. I am concerned about the local population’s ability to sustain the infrastructure (hospitals, schools, transport, security, etc.) should France leave (as 3% of Melanesians complete higher education) and grow the economy (given its reliance on nickel). But we will see.

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