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The French Election in the Pacific
Image Credit: Flickr / mikecogh

The French Election in the Pacific

 
 

While the two-candidate runoff for France’s presidency this coming Sunday poses a potential existential threat for Europe, the result will also be of great significant for France’s overseas territories in the Pacific. Although the territories of New Caledonia and French Polynesia have some levels of autonomy and their own elected assemblies, they legally remain part of France, and are therefore afforded the right to participate in France’s legislative and presidential elections. And they are, of course, also greatly affected by France’s election outcomes.

However, despite this right and the potential for a dramatic shift in the French state’s agenda should the National Front’s Marine Le Pen win the presidency, there seems to be general voter apathy, or a disconnect, within France’s Pacific territories. In the first round of voting for the presidential election, voter abstention was at record highs in with 61 percent of the eligible public in French Polynesia failing to vote, and 51 percent of those in New Caledonia doing likewise.  

In New Caledonia, this voter apathy raises concerns about enthusiasm for the forthcoming referendum on independence that is scheduled to be held no later than November 2018. Similar voter apathy for the referendum would bring its legitimacy into question.

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The Nouméa Accord of 1998 devolved a number of powers from France to New Caledonia, allowing the territory some autonomy of its own affairs; however Paris maintained control over the military, foreign policy, immigration, police, and currency within the territory. The accord also provided a provision for the referendum on independence.

Support for independence generally falls along ethnic lines, with the indigenous Melanesian Kanaks, who comprise around 40 percent of the population, desiring independence from France, and ethnic Europeans, who comprise around 35 percent, opposed. The remainder of the population are either mixed ethnicity, other Pacific Islanders, Indonesians, and Chinese. Ethnic lines also generally delineate socio-economic status within the territory.

The pro-independence parties that form the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) bloc fear that a victory by Le Pen may prevent the referendum from taking place. The bloc suspects that Le Pen’s radical nationalist agenda would lend itself to a strong opposition to the independence movement, and the referendum process itself.  In the first round of voting, FLNKS supported Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon, but has since given support to Emmanuel Macron in the run-off election.

While pro-France parties that are in favor of New Caledonia’s current level of autonomy are suspicious of what may come from a Le Pen presidency, the territory remains unenthused by Macron, who is seen as unfamiliar with the territory. This was reflected in the presidential election’s first round of voting, where Macron only received 12.75 percent of the vote, compared to François Fillion’s 31.13 percent, and Le Pen’s 29.09 percent.

A Le Pen presidency would not just have a potential impact on France’s Pacific territories themselves, but would also pose a wider problem for the Pacific’s regional governance, with a radical administration being able to exert considerable influence in the region’s multilateral institutions.

At the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) in September last year, both New Caledonia and French Polynesia were accepted into the forum as full members. Previously the forum has only accepted sovereign states as full members. This was a result of the circumstances of the forum’s foundation. The Pacific Island Forum was created in 1971 without these French territories in part due to France blocking any discussion of issues such as nuclear testing or island self-determination within the South Pacific Commission.

The ascension of France’s overseas territories in the PIF would give a potential Le Pen administration influence in the PIF’s agenda. Although these territories have some autonomy to interact and negotiate with sovereign states, the constitutional power to sign international treaties remains with France, effectively giving Paris the final word on matters of greatest significance.

This rapprochement with France within the Pacific’s premier multilateral forum is of great concern for FLNKS, which gains significant support from the PIF, in particular its Melanesian states — Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu (with whom FLNKS form the Melanesian Spearhead Group). Any attempts by these states to lobby on FLNKS’ behalf may bring them into conflict with the leadership of the French overseas territories — particularly if Le Pen decided to tear up the Nouméa Accord.

A Macron victory in Sunday’s presidential runoff should maintain the current norms within France’s overseas territories in the Pacific and their relationship with France. New Caledonia’s path toward an independence referendum would likely be maintained. A Marcon victory would also be a relief to other Pacific Island states seeking stability and continuity within their neighborhood.

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