But in New Caledonia, the French territory of 290,000 people in the Melanesian chain of islands in northeast Australia, the road is running out after more than two decades of pedaling.
It is time – perhaps it has come – for Australia to take a clearer position.
On October 4th, the second of three referendums on independence promised after 20 years of peacebuilding, there was a growing divide in people’s moods to remain under the French tricolor.
Just over 53% of voters said “no” to independence, compared to 56.7% in the first referendum in 2018. The trend suggests that a third referendum, expected in 2022, will have the “oui” vote from 46.7% this month to parity or even a slim majority would rise.
Such a prospect leads some observers to fear 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 into independence, and French settlers offered armed resistance.
It culminated in 1988 when Kanak fighters took the French police as political 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, signed by French loyalists and Kanak leaders and extended by the 1998 Nouméa Accords.
At the vote this month, the territory was still largely divided along the divide between indigenous settlers. The “Oui” vote dominated in the northern part of the main island and on the Loyalty Islands in the east, where the Kanaks are concentrated. The “no” vote prevailed in the south of the main island around Nouméa and a smaller settler enclave.
The question is where to go now? According to the agreements, a third referendum must be held if requested by at least a third of the New Caledonia Congress, its legislature. The earliest motion can be made in April for a vote in 2022.
The independent Kanak parties have the numbers required and say they will ask for it.
Loyalists who see where the numbers are trending start making fun of it. Sonia Backès, a Conservative loyalist who is president of the southern region, has said she even poses the risk of civil war.
Some loyalist elements are now pushing for new negotiations on a middle path in order not to hold the third referendum. A tougher element would like a vote to abolish the agreement in 2022 in order to add the 40,000 newer settlers to the local electoral roll and thereby ultimately outvote the Kanaks.
But there is also a compromise on the Kanak side. This week Roch Wamytan, a Kanak who signed the 1998 Accords and is now President of the Territory’s Congress, launched the idea of independence in relation to France. This would perhaps be similar to the relationship of the North Pacific states of Palau, Micronesia, and Marshall Islands with the United States, which is expanding defense, funding, and social services while still having its own membership of the United Nations.
France itself seems ready to adjust.
In 2018, President Emmanuel Macron visited New Caledonia ahead of the vote and took pride in the decision to stay with France.
This time he stayed away and later described, as Denise Fisher, a former Australian consul general in Nouméa, remarked, the “success” of the “second democratic meeting” as a sign of “confidence in the republic”. He promised to organize a third referendum if requested and urged the population of the territory to consider any post-2022 scenarios.
French Territory Minister Sebastien Lecornu appeared determined to encourage flexible thinking when he arrived in New Caledonia this month. “This binary question of a yes or no to independence is not the answer to all questions that are raised in society today.”
The New Caledonia region is also entering the debate. Vanuatu’s opposition leader and youngest foreign minister Ralph Regenvanu called for more contact with loyalists this week to convince them that New Caledonia can be a viable state.
He noted that this camp often cites Vanuatu, a former Anglo-French housing estate, as a terrible example of independence.
“It’s pretty amusing for us because we think we have a very good development model here,” Regenvanu told Radio New Zealand.
In this context, Australia looks strangely more pro-French than the French.
In a statement on the outcome of the referendum, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said: “We recognize the New Caledonians’ decision to remain part of France.” Australia values its close relationship with France as a like-minded partner in the Indo-Pacific region. We applaud France’s continued commitment to the Pacific and its significant contribution to regional security and prosperity. ”
Not a word about the Kanaks and their aspirations.
Two things play a role here. China has terrified Australia across the Pacific to the point where the French Duchess is open to being a significant counterbalance, for example through the recently proposed “axis” France-India-Australia 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 of the military balance of power, it may seem attractive to watch a major Western maritime power like France over much of the Pacific, where France has about 80% of its current exclusive economic zone.
However, this contradicts the Morrison government’s signed initiative to bring Australia to the Pacific “Vuvale” (family in Fijian).
The Melanesians are the most numerous of this family, perhaps more than the Australians later this century. They take the decolonization of their Kanak brothers very seriously. We should show that we do too.
A more constructive approach would be to join regional leaders like Regenvanu in trying to convince loyalists that a new independent Kanaky state, with continued French support and encouraged Australian investment in the struggling nickel industry, couldn’t be a bad thing, certainly better than otherwise inevitable conflict .
For Australia, this would prevent malicious influences from elsewhere and show our realization that, as Regenvanu told me earlier this year, we are “part of a black region”.
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