By Nick Kelly
Communication and co-operation are being put up as the key ingredients for any viable solution in New Caledonia as the French Pacific territory works towards a referendum on independence.
In accordance with the two historic agreements brokered by French governments, the Matignon and Noumea accords, a referendum must be held by 2018 to determine the future sovereignty of the archipelago.
The region’s final congressional elections before that due date were held last May with the separatist FLNKS coalition gaining ground, but remaining the minority party in the unity government – called a ‘collegiate ministry’.
Vaea Frogier of the French loyalist Rassemblement-UMP party said that regardless of the outcome of the referendum, without collaboration neither side would be content.
“We all have to be able to talk and find a solution,” Ms Frogier said.
New Caledonia has one of the world’s largest nickel reserves and the mining industry is the main pillar of the local economy. This creates political tension, even within parties.
Right up to the end of June, more than a month after the election, the executive government was yet to be finalised.
With ten Ministerial portfolios allocated for the incoming government, the FLNKS was divided over nominating a Minister to manage the mining ministry.
“We will not find a political solution unless a nickel solution is found,” Ms Frogier said.
“Tourism is a drop in the sea compared to the money we get from nickel, but we need to remember that nickel is a non-renewable resource; it will run out one day.”
The largest source of tension however continues to be whether or not New Caledonia will separate totally from French control.
The indigenous Kanak people assert their right to native title over the islands with support from the United Nations Decolonisation Committee.
Never giving up on the contest, even while participating in a joint government, representatives from each side were again putting their respective arguments to the UN Decolonisation Committee in New York.
Radio Djiido is a Kanak radio station affiliated with the FLNKS, which broadcasts local, Kanak music and information programming across the region.
The station News Director Romain Hmeun said he belonged to “a people not just a community” who felt strongly about autonomy, though he mirrored Ms Frogier’s comments about the need to collaborate.
“Our current system of consensual government means that both sides govern together, so the government is working for everyone,” Mr Hmeun said.
“The Matignon accords set this up as a frame of law, and they protect people’s interests.
“Even without independence they will be a protection.”
In a gesture of reconciliation between French loyalists and the indigenous Kanak people, a previous UMP government introduced the flying of the Kanak flag alongside the French flag on official buildings throughout New Caledonia.
Ms Frogier said that it was important to recognise the Kanaks as the first inhabitants, as well as the place of French settlers.
“Both are legitimate interests,” she said. “The country belongs to both.”
Mr Hmeun said that Kanaks had responded well to the idea of the joint flags.
“People seem to be happy with it in general,” he said.
According to Mr Hmeun, municipalities in the north of the main island, controlled by the separatist parties, were flying both flags.
While a gap remains in the health and education standards between Kanak and European communities, vast improvements have been made since the Matignon Accord was signed. Mr Hmuen said many young Kanaks were now travelling to France and Australia to study professions such as teaching.
Mr Hmuen said FLNKS leaders also sought to reassure residents that there should be no need for apprehension about what would happen in an independent New Caledonia.
“The younger generations of Kanaks have no wish for revenge if independence is granted,” he said.
With indigenous issues being heard, violent outbursts are currently confined to industrial and environmental grievances over mining in areas south of Noumea.
Those uprisings have seen youths throwing stones at vehicles and setting up road-blocks, while clashes over recent weeks have involved large squads of police dispatched to quell the violence. Two police have been shot in these disturbances, suffering non-fatal wounds.
Squads of up to 80 police deployed over the last week of June have been rounding up and charging suspects.
Meanwhile, with the deadline for the 2018 independence vote rapidly approaching, with a date to be set well before that, communication and co-operation between the two sides of the steep political divide does look to be a growing reality.
While the simmering tension and quasi-civil war of the past is being lived down, for some the wounds remain tender.
“The past is still very present in everyone’s minds,” Ms Frogier said.