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New Caledonia elects pro-independence Kanak candidate

Emmanuel Tijabou /Photo courtesy of Liberation

By James C. Pearce

For the first time in its history, New Caledonia has elected a pro-independence Kanak candidate to the French National Assembly.

Emmanuel Tijabou beat the loyalist candidate, Alcide Ponga, in the second round of voting on July 7. 

French President Emmanuel Macron called snap parliamentary elections in June after the European far right trounced the EU Parliamentary elections. His gamble, designed to blunt the far right’s march to power, has resulted in a hung parliament.

A newly fashioned left-wing coalition, the Popular Front, won the most seats ahead of Macron’s centrist Ensemble. The far-right National Rally, headed by Marine Le Pen, came in third place after winning the most votes and seats in the first round of voting.

To block the far right from forming a majority and nominating their own prime minister, a total of 221 candidates withdrew from the second round of voting. It is a gamble that paid off, but one that puts France and New Caledonia in a state of confusion and unpredictability.

New Caledonia elects two members to the French Assembly. A total of 18 candidates ran for election in both constituencies. Pro-independence groups and voices initially could not agree on a list of candidates.

Some, like the hardline CCAT, instructed their voters only to block the far right.

Tijaboi secured 57.01 percent of the vote in the second constituency. He will be joined in Paris by loyalist politician, Nicolas Metzdorf, who beat pro-independence candidate Omarya Naisseline with 52.41 percent in the first constituency.

Turnout in New Caledonia is usually low. In 2022, just 32 percent of the 220,000 registered voters in the first round of parliamentary elections turned out.

However, a record 69 percent voted in the first constituency and 72 percent in the second, sending a strong message to Paris.

Tijabou is the son of a well-known Kanak independence leader, Jean-Marie Tjibaou, who was assassinated in 1989. His win is viewed as a setback for the pro-France movement in the territory.

Tijabou said he felt a huge sense of responsibility after his election victory in the face of New Caledonia's current situation, which has been the scene of violence and riots for multiple weeks.

The Kanaks' mass rallies in New Caledonia following a voting reform in Paris resulted in violent riots that killed nine people in May 2024.

Riots and looting engulfed New Caledonia after lawmakers in Paris approved a constitutional amendment to allow recent arrivals in the territory to vote in provincial elections.

The indigenous Kanak population, making up 40 percent of the population, feared the law would further dilute their own influence. Nine people died, hundreds were injured and 1,500 got arrested, according to New Caledonia’s High Commission.

France dispatched some 3,500 troops to get the situation under control. Most of the violence was confined to Nouméa and the surrounding communes, leaving the islands and northern provinces largely untouched.

The decision was put on ice by Macron on June 12.

Though the tensions have calmed, some protests flared up in late June over the arrest and transfer of seven pro-independence figures to mainland France. A police station, town hall and several other buildings were set ablaze.

Chistophe Tein, leader of pro-independence CCAT, was arrested and detained in Paris for allegedly inciting the riots. He has called himself a political prisoner and denies the allegations.

Two members of the French Green Party met with Tein in a supervised visit, where he claimed he had been unable to speak with his lawyer.

Eight others were also transferred to mainland France.

France’s human rights league has called Tein’s detainment in faraway Paris a serious infringement.

Daniel Goa, president of the Caledonian Union, said he was surprised that they had been flown to mainland France for detention.

 Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin previously described the CCAT as a "mafia-style organization," but the group has maintained that it was not to blame for the riots.

Kanak leaders initially called for calm, but the traditional leaders and local government were ignored. Voter apathy is particularly rife among pro-independence voters.

Changes to electoral boundaries made in 1986 minimized the Kanak vote in both of the territory’s constituencies, which put them off voting.

However, with Tijabou’s victory the French government will urgently have to resolve the crisis on its Pacific frontier. Both sides are disgruntled with Paris.

Whereas the pro-independence voters feel marginalized and unheard, pro-French voters resent Macron and hold him personally responsible for the violence.

New Caledonia’s outgoing assembly members did not seek the endorsement of Macron’s centrist party.

However, uncertainty remains. France has no government. Prime Minister Gabriel Attal has resigned, as Ensemble did not receive a majority or the largest number of seats.

His replacement could be the far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon, who has expressed NATO skepticism and wishes to end the war in Ukraine.

A relatively unknown center-left politician, such as Francois Ruffin, Boris Vallaud or Laurent Berger, is likely to emerge,

Thankfully for New Caledonia, the National Rally has not triumphed. The chauvinist party would actively seek to undermine indigenous rights and voices and do so to appease nationalists in the French countryside, and strengthen the central government in Paris.

For now, New Caledonia’s future hangs in the balance. As the president of the Human Rights League Nathalie Tehio noted, at some point both sides will have to sit down and discuss their common destiny.

“The Noumea Accords set out a process for decolonization. France must respect that [and] attempt to restore peace through legal channels and commit to fighting inequalities," Tehio said.

“That the violence did not spread to outer communities shows that the peace process has forged links between communities,” he added.

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