"New Caledonia is French because it has chosen to remain French," president told a 10,000-strong crowd
Emmanuel Macron forcefully reaffirmed France's authority in its overseas territory of New Caledonia on Wednesday, scolding the pro-independence movement for shunning talks as he offered Caledonians two options: "forgiveness" and "the future".
In a speech on the Place des Cocotiers in the regional capital, Nouméa, in front of some 10,000 people, the French president said he did not "underestimate the disappointed aspirations of those who defended a completely different project" – in other words, independence.
But he told them that after three "no" votes to independence in the referendums of 2018, 2020 and 2021, it was time to pursue a "new project" of "New Caledonia in the Republic".
"No turning back, no stuttering, no standing still", he declared to the largely pro-French crowd, who chanted the Marseillaise at the start and end of the speech.
The Union Calédonienne (UC), the region's main pro-independence party, had called on its activists to stay away from Macron's appearance. The result was that only a single Kanak flag was visible in a sea of French tricolours.
Earlier in the day, the UC's political representatives also refused to attend a meeting with Macron, who wanted them to face what he called their "immense responsibility" to reach a consensus on constitutional reform.
"I was personally hurt" by these absences, Macron said. He also warned against the temptation to "take refuge in separatism", which "today or tomorrow" poses the "risk of violence" even though peace is a "treasure" to be preserved.
The risks of rupture
Macron first visited New Caledonia in 2018, just before the three referendums provided for in the 1998 Nouméa Accord.
However, the pro-independence members of the Front de Libération National Kanak Socialiste (FLNKS) are contesting the last ballot, which they boycotted – and negotiations to redefine New Caledonia's constitutional status have stalled.
Macron has called on all parties to have the "greatness to accept" the results of the referendums.
Above all, he warned bluntly that independence would hand the Pacific archipelago over to China's growing ambitions in the region.
"If independence means choosing tomorrow to have a Chinese base here", "good luck, that's not called independence", he scolded, suggesting that we "look at" the countries in the region that "have lost their sovereignty".
This he said after the Union Calédonienne criticised the Head of State for "exploiting" New Caledonia to "serve his strategy" in the Asia-Pacific "to strike a balance between China and the United States".
The way forward
To turn the page, Macron is proposing two "twin paths", that of "forgiveness" and that of "the future".
The first, which is intended to meet the Kanaks' expectations in terms of remembrance, "is not a path of repentance", but a way of "looking in the face", together, "this past that does not want to go away". And all the "suffering", particularly that of the "Kanak people", he added.
The second way, the president argued, would necessarily involve "lasting, renewed and effective institutions".
He said he hoped that a constitutional revision, provided for in the Nouméa Accord, "could take place at the beginning of 2024". And he urged the political leaders to reach agreement quickly to unfreeze the region's electoral body.
To show that this "path for the future" is concrete, he promised an "economic revival", including ensuring that New Caledonia's vital nickel production sector is profitable.
In this respect, he mentioned state funding for an "overhaul of the energy sector" to provide "competitive" and "low-carbon" electricity.