A 48-hour visit by French President Emmanuel Macron to the south-west Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia has highlighted rather than calmed stirrings of discontent among those who dream of bringing 170 years of colonial rule to an end.
As far as it is possible to travel from Paris and still be on French soil, this far-flung outpost of France’s historic empire is fiercely divided on its destiny. Up to half its 280,000 citizens, notably the poorer indigenous Kanaks, want the excitement and challenge of independence while the other half, including better-off islanders with roots in metropolitan France, clings to continuity and stability as a French dependency.
Successive referendums have produced votes against severing the colonial ties, but by majorities that were narrowing until a poll in December 2021 was boycotted by independence supporters. Their demands for a delay in holding the referendum because of the impact of Covid-19 on New Caledonia were rejected, rendering meaningless the subsequent near-unanimous vote, in a derisory turnout of under 44 per cent, to remain French.
At a time when France is seeking to act as a balancing power in the region as China and the US compete for influence, pressure for independence for the second-biggest French overseas territory arouses serious concern in Paris.
A French government website marvels at New Caledonia’s “picture postcard” charms, with abundant flora and fauna, glorious sandy beaches, turquoise waters and the world’s largest lagoon, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Despite this undisputed natural beauty, it is under-developed as a holiday destination, especially when compared with the Pacific islands of French Polynesia, and subsidies from France account for three times more of the GDP than either tourism or the archipelago’s traditional nickel-mining industry.
Since 1998, an agreement between Paris and the capital Noumea – the so-called Noumea Accord – has established special status assuring New Caledonians of their own as well as French nationality, and gradually handing over powers. Islanders are EU citizens and have the right to live and work in France and vote in national elections.
In the 2022 presidential election, the majority in favour of Mr Macron’s second term was slightly higher in New Caledonia, at 61 per cent, than he obtained overall. But independence-supporting politicians now hold distinctly cool feelings towards him.
The President has worked hard to present himself as a champion of post-colonial contrition with statesmanlike apologies for the “crime against humanity” of France’s record in, for example, Algeria. If this language heartens progressives, it inflames a growing number of French people who vote for far-right candidates like Marine Le Pen. And in common with so many French political leaders, the President, mindful of the distinct danger of Ms Le Pen succeeding him when his second and final term ends in 2027, has made gestures on immigration and security designed to appease populist opinion.
It seems disingenuous to rely on the 2021 referendum as proof that the will of the New Caledonian people is to remain French since support for independence had risen from 43 to nearly 47 per cent in the two previous votes. Mr Macron nevertheless insists that New Caledonia’s way forward must take account of all three results.
"New Caledonia is French because it has chosen to remain French," he told a rally of up to 10,000 loyalists in Noumea, acclaiming the process that saw the territory move forward from violent unrest in the 1980s as “a source of pride for us all". The President urged islanders to avoid being tempted by the sort of future that could one day see a Chinese military base established on the archipelago. “That is not called independence,” he said.
During his visit, Mr Macron summoned political leaders and stressed the need for dialogue on developing New Caledonia’s constitutional status, calling for a “profound, sincere political exchange".
But key figures from the pro-independence movement, led by the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) coalition, refused to attend the meeting, a clear disappointment for Mr Macron, who recognises that the archipelago finds itself "in a kind of suspended state".
Moving from New Caledonia to the former Anglo-French colony of Vanuatu, the President alluded to the jockeying for position of the two superpowers. France is closely watching China’s efforts to assert itself in the South-Pacific where, last year, Beijing reached agreement on a new security pact with the Solomon Islands. In response to the Chinese push for greater authority, the US has signed its own defence deal with Papua New Guinea and reinforced its diplomatic and economic presence in the region.
Mr Macron warned that a “new imperialism” in the Indo-Pacific endangered the sovereignty of several states. If China was the obvious target of his words, it was perhaps just as well that he stopped short of saying so, given the awkward coincidence of a visit to Beijing of French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire on a mission to drum up investment in France.
He preferred to commend France’s own approach in the region, concentrating on not only defence and sovereignty but the battle against climate change, a huge issue in Vanuatu and other low-lying Pacific islands.
“Our Indo-Pacific strategy is above all to defend through partnerships the independence and sovereignty of all states in the region that are ready to work with us," he said, again offering candid acknowledgement of a dark heritage of colonialism that was “as brutal [in Vanuatu] as that imposed elsewhere”.
A desire to counter Chinese ambitions without slavishly supporting the US explains the inclusion of Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea on the tour. After a hectic visit, complicated by the need to respond to the military coup in Niger, a French colony until 1960, he returned to Paris via a brief stop-over in Sri Lanka.
But if New Caledonia was the main focus of his tour, it was hardly an unqualified success given the FLNKS leaders’ declarations that France’s regional strategy, and its attachment to the outcome of the flawed third referendum, cannot be used to frustrate the march towards statehood.
Back in France, Mr Macron has begun his annual working holiday at the Fort de Bregancon, the Mediterranean presidential retreat. Despite a bulging in-tray of pressing issues after a torrid series of domestic crises and, now, anti-French protests in Niger, he was also left with one New Caledonian independence campaigner’s barbed question ringing in his ears: “Is he coloniser or liberator?”