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By Nic Maclellan in Noumea, New Caledonia
Ten years ago, a group of anti-independence politicians in New Caledonia forged a new political party: Calédonie ensemble (Caledonia Together). Led by Philippe Gomes and Marie-Noelle Themereau, the party held its founding congress on 11 October 2008 at the Kuendu Beach resort, on the outskirts of New Caledonia’s capital Noumea.
On the tenth anniversary of the founding meeting, members of Calédonie ensemble (CE) met again at Kuendu Beach on Saturday 6 October, for the party’s 10th annual congress. For CE president Philippe Gomes, it’s an opportunity to reflect on the achievements of the last decade, but also to prepare for New Caledonia’s looming referendum on self-determination, to be held on 4 November.
Addressing party members, Gomes called for a No vote, to stay within the French Republic. He also called for further dialogue with supporters of independence: “We cannot build peace, consolidate the peace or maintain the peace, if we don’t talk to them.”
However Gomes also predicted that a No majority in November will end the quest for independence: “If the result is 70/30 as people predict, the door to a future outside the French Republic will be well and truly closed.”
CE is the dominant force amongst conservative parties opposed to independence in the French Pacific dependency. At the last local elections in May 2014, CE won the most seats of any party in New Caledonia’s Congress. In 2017 French legislative elections, CE made a clean sweep of New Caledonia’s representation in Paris, with Philippe Gomes and Philippe Dunoyer winning both seats in the French National Assembly and Gerard Poadja taking the seat in the French Senate.
Today, CE’s Philippe Germain serves as President of the Government of New Caledonia, while Philippe Michel is President of the Southern Province, the largest of New Caledonia’s three provincial assemblies.
As part of the “gang of Philippes”, Michel has been a loyal lieutenant of Philippe Gomes since they were both members of the anti-independence party RPCR in the 1980s. Standing at the entrance to Kuendu Beach resort, Michel welcomed CE delegates to the congress, shaking hands and greeting arriving delegations from around the country (each provided with a different coloured baseball cap in a theatrical and photogenic display of CE’s support base).
A decade on from CE’s foundation, Michel told me that this year’s meeting comes at a crucial time.
“The congress takes place just a month from the referendum, which will be an especially important moment for all New Caledonians,” he said. “So this meeting is another opportunity for us to share our message about the need for dialogue with the independence movement, because what’s most important about this referendum is what comes afterwards.
“The day after the vote, the challenge is the possibility of living in peace with one another and then engaging in political dialogue to create a definitive political solution between supporters and opponents of independence.”
Leading up to the vote, CE has been more active around the country than other anti-independence parties. Last month, CE activists began distributing 70,000 copies of a propaganda booklet entitled “Le patrimoine commun du peuple calédonien” (The common heritage of the New Caledonian people), outlining reasons for voting No.
Throughout September, the party has also been organising small meetings in Kanak tribes in the Northern Province and Loyalty Islands Province - these regions, where the population is largely indigenous Kanak, have been run by the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) since the late 1980s.
Gerard Poadja is a longtime member of New Caledonia’s anti-independence movement. Originally from Poindah tribe near Kohne in the Northern Province, the Kanak politician has flown the CE banner in the north since joining the party in 2009. At the Kuendu Beach congress, Poadja told me that there is a base for a ‘No’ vote in the rural regions.
“Indépedantistes are the majority in both the Northern Province and the Loyalty Islands, but there’s a proportion of the population who don’t automatically support independence,” he said. “I think you’ll see a number of people in the north who’ll vote to keep New Caledonia within France. Just because they’ve always gained a majority in assembly elections doesn’t mean that people will follow them towards independence.”
With elections for the three provincial assemblies to be held again in May 2019, Poadja predicts a return to the existing balance of forces in the national Congress: “I’d make a distinction between the referendum and the normal legislative elections. Next May, I think we’ll see a return to the normal balance in the elections.”
Forging the new party
Calédonie ensemble grew out of divisions in the once hegemonic Rassemblement pour la Calédonie dans la République (RPCR), the fiefdom of conservative politician Jacques Lafleur in the 20th Century.
RPCR was founded in 1978, the year after New Caledonia’s oldest party Union Calédonienne (UC) turned from autonomy to independence at its 1977 Bourail congress. Bringing together anti-independence forces under the banner of the RPCR, Lafleur dominated local politics for many years. By the turn of the century, however, his long dominance on the Right was under challenge from dissidents within his own party.
Philippe Gomes, Harold Martin and Marie-Noelle Themereau, a leading businesswoman in property and real estate, all fell afoul of Lafleur and left the RPCR. In 2004, these three dissidents joined businessman Didier Leroux to form a new party Avenir ensemble (AE - The Future Together).
This “Gang of Four” later split after Gomes and Leroux competed to represent the party in 2007 elections for the French National Assembly. Gomes and Themereau left AE to form a new party, ironically called Caledonia Together.
Based on personality as much as policy, the parting of ways was bitter. In an interview at the time of the split in 2008, Didier Leroux bluntly told me: “I believe that Philippe Gomes is dangerous … I think he is a danger for New Caledonia. We have had 25 years of dictatorship or quasi dictatorship [under Jacques Lafleur]. I don’t want another 25 years of management like this.”
After the 2009 local elections, Gomes served as President of New Caledonia until 2011. Only two years into a five-year mandate, his government collapsed in a series of no confidence motions. Former ally turned rival Harold Martin served out the remaining three years of the government as President. The bad blood generated by the undermining of the Gomes presidency led to a concerted – and successful – effort by CE to smash its conservative rivals.
Over the last decade, CE has become the dominant force in the anti-independence movement. Gomes’ party has repeatedly defeated Pierre Frogier’s Rassemblement - Les Républicains (LR), Sonia Backes’ Les Républicains Calédoniens (LRC) and the Mouvement populaire calédonien (MPC) for key positions at all levels of government.
In June 2012, Gomes and CE’s Sonia Lagarde won New Caledonia’s two seats in the French National Assembly, defeating incumbent Rassemblement members. In March 2014, CE took control of a number of municipal councils in the Southern Province, with Lagarde winning as Mayor of Noumea – the first time a woman held the post in Rassemblement’s long-time municipal fiefdom in the capital. CE then went on to replace its rival as the largest anti-independence party in the 2014 Assembly and Congress elections.
Despite this, CE lacks a sole majority in the current Congress and has relied on an alliance with the other anti-independence parties. United largely by their opposition to independence, the Right is divided on a range of policy issues, especially over the best way to negotiate with the FLNKS and other independence parties.
Gomes, for example, was opposed to Pierre Frogier’s 2010 initiative that the Kanak flag fly alongside the French tricolor outside schools and other public buildings. CE mayors in La Foa and Poya refused to fly the flag, leading to a bitter and unresolved dispute with independence politicians from the UC-FLNKS group in the Congress.
In his book “Pour que continue à vivre le rêve calédonien”, published earlier this year, Gomes argues: “The FLNKS flag flying on the pediment of our institutions is in total contradiction to the Noumea Accord ….we must re-open the dialogue on this central symbolic question, so that we can finally develop a flag acceptable to all.”
For the Kanak independence movement, the multi-coloured flag of Kanaky serves as the ultimate banner of their long struggle for a sovereign nation, to be known as Kanaky-New Caledonia. A consensual solution will not be easy.
Forging a new solution
After the referendum on 4 November, the Right will likely divide again as they prepare for the next local elections in May 2019. A Yes vote will cause chaos for the Right, but even a No majority will still cause problems - provisions of the 1998 Noumea Accord allow for two further referendums on self-determination (after the May 2019 elections, one third of Congress members can call for a second vote in 2020. If that referendum again returns a No majority, a third poll could be held in 2022).
CE’s Gerard Poadja doesn’t think that further votes should be held without more dialogue between contending parties.
“Two more votes, that’s what is foreseen in the Noumea Accord, but there will be pressure for discussion coming from the French State. Two other referendums can be held through a decision of the Congress, but for the moment, I think there will be new dialogue after the November referendum, as we’ve seen during the dialogue with the French State that already created two political agreements [the 1988 Matignon-Oudinot Agreements and the 1998 Noumea Accord].”
President of the Southern Province Philippe Michel is opposed to following the process mapped out in the Accord.
“I believe that we shouldn’t go to a second or third referendum, because it’s clear that New Caledonians won’t change their opinion just two years after expressing a clear ‘No’,” he told me at Kuendu Beach. “If we go down the tunnel towards a second and third referendum, it will create chaos in New Caledonia. We’ll continue to clash with each other and it’s a bad solution for the country.
“So holding the first referendum is appropriate – it’s been foreseen for thirty years. New Caledonians must express their views democratically, in a clear manner. But afterwards, we must re-commence dialogue to create a sustainable political solution acceptable to all, rather than repeat the sterile confrontation that brings nothing to the country.”
Under the Noumea Accord, the French State has financed the transfer of key legal and administrative powers from Paris to Noumea over the last 20 years. November’s referendum will decide on whether to transfer the five remaining ‘competences régaliennes’ or sovereign powers: defence, foreign policy, justice, police and currency.
Michel however believes that an innovative solution can be found without moving to full independence and sovereignty.
“In reality, the challenge is to discuss a solution based on association for New Caledonia over the exercise of the sovereign powers, to resolve the question of citizenship and the right to vote,” he said.
“We have to find a solution for sharing these powers between New Caledonia and France. In New Caledonia, we already control most powers except these sovereign powers. I think with some intelligence, we can find a solution. But for that, we need a peaceful referendum and a real desire for discussion.”
SOURCE: ISLANDS BUSINESS/PACNEWS
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