But in New Caledonia, a French region of 290,000 people on the Melanesian island chain in northeastern Australia, the road ran out after more than two decades of cycling.
It’s time – perhaps has come – for Australia to take a clearer position.
On October 4, the second of three promised independence referendums after 20 years of peace building, there was a growing gap in people’s moods to remain under the French tricolor.
More than 53% of voters said “no” to independence, compared to 56.7% in the first referendum of 2018. The trend shows that the third referendum, expected in 2022, will get an “oui” of 46.7% this month. into parity or even a slim majority going up.
Such a prospect has some observers fearing a return to communal violence in the late 1980s, when indigenous Kanaks tried to follow their Melanesian counterparts in Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea towards independence, and French settlers offered armed resistance.
The climax was in 1988 when Kanak fighters took French police hostage on the small island of Ouvéa; French special forces died with significant deaths. The horror led to a 10-year peace effort, the Matignon Accords, which were signed by French loyalists and Kanak leaders and extended by the 1998 Nouméa Accord.
As of this month’s vote, most of the territory is still divided along the division between indigenous settlers. The sound of “Oui” predominates in the northern part of the main island and in the Loyalty Islands to the east, where the Kanaks are concentrated. The “no” vote prevails south of the main island around Nouméa and smaller settler enclaves.
The question is where to go now? Under the agreement, a third referendum must be held if requested by at least a third of the New Caledonia Congress, its legislature. The earliest motion could be made in April for the ballot in 2022.
The independent Kanak Party has the required number and says they will ask for it.
Loyalists who saw where the numbers were trending began to make fun of him. Sonia Backès, a staunch Conservative supporter who is president of the southern region, says she even risks civil war.
Some loyalist elements are now pushing for new negotiations in the middle ground so as not to hold a third referendum. A tougher element wants a vote to scrap the 2022 treaty to add 40,000 new settlers to the local electoral list and thus ultimately defeat the Kanaks.
But there was compromise on Kanak’s side too. This week Roch Wamytan, a Child who signed the 1998 Accords and is now President of the Regional Congress, launched the idea of independence in relation to France. This may be akin to the relationship of the North Pacific states of Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands with the United States, which extends defense, funding, and social services while retaining its own membership in the United Nations.
France itself seems ready to adjust.
In 2018, President Emmanuel Macron visited New Caledonia ahead of the vote and was proud of the decision to stay with France.
This time he walked away and later described, as Denise Fisher, the former consul general of Australia in Nouméa, said the “success” of the “second democratic assembly” as a sign of “trust in the republic”. He promised to hold a third referendum if asked and urged residents of the region to consider the post-2022 scenario.
French Territory Minister Sebastien Lecornu appeared determined to encourage flexible thinking when he arrived in New Caledonia this month. “The binary question of yes or no to independence is not the answer to all the questions that arise in society today.”
The New Caledonia region has also entered the debate. Opposition leader Vanuatu and youngest foreign minister Ralph Regenvanu called for more contacts with loyalists this week to assure them that New Caledonia can become a viable country.
He noted that the camp frequently cites Vanuatu, a former Anglo-French estate, as a chilling example of independence.
“It’s pretty funny for us because we think we have a really good development model here,” Regenvanu told Radio New Zealand.
In this context, Australia seems oddly more pro-French than France.
In a statement on the referendum results, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said: “We recognize New Caledonia’s decision to remain part of France.” Australia values its close relationship with France as a like-minded partner in the Indo-Pacific region. We appreciate France’s continued commitment to the Pacific and its significant contribution to the region’s security and prosperity. ”
Not a word about Kanak and their aspirations.
Two things come into play here. China has frightened Australia across the Pacific to the point where the French Duchess is open to being a significant counterweight, for example through its recently proposed France-India-Australia “axis” and the appointment of a French ambassador to the Indo-Pacific.
Both India and Australia are of course big customers for the French defense industry.
From a narrow perspective on the balance of military power, it may seem interesting to look at major Western maritime powers such as France in much of the Pacific, where France has about 80% of its current exclusive economic zone.
However, this goes against an initiative signed by the Morrison government to bring Australia to the Pacific “Vuvale” (family in Fijian).
Melanesians make up the most of this family, perhaps more than Australians at the end of this century. They take the decolonization of their Brotherhood very seriously. We have to show that we do too.
A more constructive approach is to join regional leaders like Regenvanu in trying to convince loyalists that an independent, new Kanaky state, with continued French support and encouraging Australian investment in the struggling nickel industry, can’t be a bad thing, certainly better. than otherwise the inevitable conflict.
For Australia, this will prevent evil influences from elsewhere and demonstrate our awareness that, as Regenvanu told me earlier this year, we are “part of the black region”.
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