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In restive New Caledonia, Macron sees Pacific power and influence

                                Police wait for the arrival of French President Emmanuel Macron at the central police station in Noumea.
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Police wait for the arrival of French President Emmanuel Macron at the central police station in Noumea.

PARIS >> In 2018, a year after becoming France’s president, Emmanuel Macron flew to the remote French-ruled Pacific island of New Caledonia to outline his latest foreign policy plan.

With China’s regional ambitions growing, a new Indo-Pacific strategy was needed to prevent it from becoming hegemonic, he said. New Caledonia would be a key French anchor of that plan.

“I believe in the future of this territory, and I believe in the place that this territory occupies in a broader strategy,” he said. “The Indo-Pacific is at the heart of the French project.”

Six years later, Macron’s Indo-Pacific aspirations are facing their toughest test yet after days of deadly unrest on New Caledonia. At least seven people have died in protests against a constitutional amendment that would expand New Caledonia’s electorate to include recent French arrivals. Some indigenous Kanaks believe the change will dilute their vote.

Macron reacted with a firm hand, dispatching 3,000 security officers to quell unrest that he called “an unprecedented insurrection”. Although he delayed ratifying the voting reform to reach a settlement, he said the measure has “democratic legitimacy”. He also appeared to extinguish some islanders’ hopes of independence, saying the results of a disputed 2021 referendum, in which an overwhelming majority on New Caledonia voted to remain French, were valid.

Aides and experts said Macron’s tough stance underlines his commitment to a doctrine that gives France a foothold in a geopolitically important region where the United States and China are jostling for power.

New Caledonia “sustains France’s role as a great power in the world,” said Denise Fisher, Australia’s former consul-general on the island. It is one of five French island territories across the Indo-Pacific, a “string of pearls” that bolsters Paris’ claim to have the world’s second largest exclusive economic zone, largely thanks to its maritime control of waters around those islands, Fisher said.

Set in the warm waters of the southwest Pacific, some 1,500 km (930 miles) east of Australia, New Caledonia is home to 270,000 people, including 41% Melanesian Kanak and 24% of European origin, mostly French.

The protests are the latest flashpoint in a decades-long tussle over France’s role in the island. Named by British explorer Captain James Cook in 1774, New Caledonia was colonised by France in 1853 and became an overseas territory in 1946.

Tensions between the indigenous Kanaks and Paris erupted into violent conflicts in the 1970s, and rumbled along until they were finally settled in the 1998 Noumea Accord, which outlined a path to gradual autonomy via three referendums.

In all three, independence was rejected. However, many Kanaks refused to participate in the 2021 vote due to health concerns during the COVID pandemic, leaving lingering resentment over the result.

This month’s protests, which came as lawmakers in Paris passed the voting reform, have left a trail of burned buildings, barricaded roads and looted businesses.

Brenda Wanabo, a spokeswoman for the Field Action Coordination Cell (CCAT) which helped organize the protests, said Paris was particularly interested in New Caledonia’s nickel. The island is the world’s No.3 miner of a metal used in electric vehicle batteries, but the sector has been struggling for years and required bailouts from the French government.

She accused Macron of ramming through the 2021 referendum and criticized the planned change to voting eligibility as having been cooked up between Paris and local lawmakers.

“We see that the state has become biased since Macron came to power,” she said.

Macron’s office did not respond to a request for comment.


France’s Indo-Pacific territories give it bragging rights over its European Union peers. It is the only EU country to have territories in the Indo-Pacific, which are home to over 1.6 million French citizens and 7,000 soldiers.

“This is something that others don’t have,” said a Macron aide.

The importance of these territories rose after the 2021 collapse of a multi-billion-dollar submarine deal between France and Australia, experts said. Australia scrapped its French order in favour of a U.S.-UK deal, enraging Paris and triggering an unprecedented diplomatic crisis.

The submarine deal, a cornerstone of Macron’s 2018 Indo-Pacific strategy, would have deepened French military influence in the region. After its collapse, Paris sought to build deeper ties with Pacific nations. France and Japan agreed this month to start formal talks on a reciprocal troop access deal, which would create frameworks to facilitate military cooperation.

Rene Dosiere, a former socialist lawmaker who was one of the architects of 1998 Noumea Accord, said that despite its geopolitical interest, Paris showed little day-to-day concern for the island.

“I don’t see the interest, apart from the fact that it’s a former colony,” he said. Macron’s interest in New Caledonia, he said, stemmed from a “desire to have a territory that allows you to say, ‘The sun never sets on the French empire.’” (Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau, John Irish and Kirsty Needham Writing by Gabriel Stargardter Editing by Frances Kerry)

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