With Troubles at Home, Macron Pops Up 10,000 Miles Away


President Emmanuel Macron of France has a lot to manage. The European elections are fast approaching, and his party is predicted to lose. There are the frenzied preparations for the Olympic Games in Paris. A manhunt is underway for a convict whose brazen and deadly jailbreak shocked the country.

The last place many expected Mr. Macron to be was on a plane to one of France’s territories in the Pacific, where riots have exploded all week. But there he was, arriving in New Caledonia on Thursday with three ministers in tow, on a mission to heal and listen in a territory where many hold him personally responsible for the unrest.

“I come here with determination to work toward restoring peace, with lots of respect and humility,” he said when he arrived.

The riots were set off by the prospect of a vote last week in the National Assembly in Paris to expand voting rights in the territory. Many in the local Indigenous population worry that the law would hamper the long process toward independence.

Mr. Macron planned to meet with local officials and civil-society activists, to thank the police and start a round of dialogue before quickly hopping back on a plane and returning more than 10,000 miles to mainland France.

The trip, in many ways, is classic Macron. He feels that any dispute, no matter how heated, can be resolved through personal dialogue with him. But given the local distrust of the government, many believe his trip is not just short, but shortsighted.

“He has a responsibility for this problem,” said Jean-François Merle, an expert on New Caledonia with the Jean Jaurès Foundation who advised former Prime Minister Michel Rocard during the region’s delicate peace negotiations in the 1980s. “I’m not sure there are political commitments for dialogue — on all sides.”

Riots broke out in New Caledonia, a tiny archipelago of about 270,000, last week, leading to the worst violence there in decades: six dead, many injured and about 400 businesses damaged, many by arson.

From the distant perch of Paris, the French authorities declared a state of emergency in the region and sent hundreds of police officers in an attempt to restore peace. On Wednesday, Mr. Macron said from New Caledonia that security forces would remain for “as long as necessary” but that the state of emergency “should not be prolonged.”

“This trip is coming way too late,” said Martial Foucault, a political science professor who leads the department of French overseas territories at Sciences Po in Paris. “No one was expecting Macron to go there.”

The discontent stretches back to 2021, when Mr. Macron insisted on holding the territory’s third independence referendum despite pleas from leaders in the Indigenous Kanak community to delay the vote because of the coronavirus pandemic. Many communities had been ravaged by the virus, and local customs prohibited political activity during mourning.

In the end, the Kanak leaders called for a boycott of the vote. They have since refused to accept the results, in which 97 percent of the voters wanted the territory to stay in France but just 44 percent of the population voted. Previous referendums showed much higher voter turnout and resulted in pro-France outcomes of 57 percent and 53 percent.

Mr. Macron and his government considered the vote definitive, closing the long-simmering debate on independence. He has also emphasized the role of France’s foothold in the Indo-Pacific as a bulwark against China’s expanding influence.

It was unclear if independence activists would meet with Mr. Macron during his short visit this week. Many refused to meet the French interior minister in February; a videoconference with him last week was canceled “for lack of willing participants,” according to Agence France-Presse.

New Caledonia was settled by the French in 1853 as a penal colony, with an explicit policy to turn Indigenous populations into a minority, said Benoît Trépied, an anthropologist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research who specializes in New Caledonia.

After tensions and violence between pro-independence militants and loyalists in the 1980s culminated in deadly hostage taking, a peace agreement called the Matignon accords was signed.

That agreement, and the Nouméa accords that followed, gradually handed over much of the political power to the Kanak community, formally acknowledged its culture and customs and set up a three-vote referendum on independence.

As the new century dawned, voting on the independence referendum was put off for two more decades. The French authorities agreed to freeze electoral rolls so that recent arrivals to New Caledonia, who were thought to be more likely to support French rule, could not sway the vote.

For pro-independence forces, the vote in Parliament last week to expand voting rights has threatened a delicate balance by offering people who have lived in New Caledonia for more than 10 years the right to vote in upcoming provincial elections.

The French government argues that the bill is a much-needed fix to the democratic process. Local Kanak leaders see it as the removal of a protection meant to keep them from being turned into an even smaller minority in their own land.

Mr. Macron can talk all he likes, Mr. Trépied said, but without a commitment to hold back the new law and draft a new referendum, he did not foresee that any Kanak leaders would listen. “The political amnesia of Macron and his political movement are irresponsible,” he said.

The government was not facing social protest movements typical to France or even akin to the riots that erupted across the country last summer, Mr. Trépied added: “He’s facing a people that are fighting for their decolonialization and who will never, ever back down.”



Source link

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top