The latest meeting of those charged with steering New Caledonia into its next stage of governance went some small way to resolving sensitive political issues but also demonstrated just how deep divisions run regarding the possibility of independence.

The Committee of Signatories that met in Paris last week is the steering group of the Noumea Accord which, by building on previous Accords, has presided over 28 years of peace in New Caledonia. The Accords ended the 1980s civil war over independence with promises to hand over significant responsibilities to the locally elected government, to re-distribute nickel wealth, and to hold an independence referendum by 2018.

Representation on the Committee now extends beyond the eight remaining signatories to the Accord. All of the major political powers were present in Paris, an achievement in itself after past non-attendance by one major independence group and one pro-France group. Apart from the French State delegation, led by Prime Minister Manuel Valls, the Committee included representatives of the four major party groups in New Caledonia (the Rassemblement and Calédonie Ensemble, both pro-France groups; and the FLNKS/Palika and Union Calédonienne, on the pro-independence side), along with key elected office-holders in New Caledonia (the President of New Caledonia, the Presidents of the three provinces).

The meeting addressed the five controversial issues at the heart of Kanak independence demands: the future status of New Caledonia, voter eligibility, transfers of responsibilities, opportunities for young Kanaks, and the sharing of nickel revenue. Given the depth of differences, and no doubt with a view to urging focused, concerted action in difficult areas, the French-drafted summary of conclusions makes repeated mention of the 2017 national elections in France that will interrupt the vital last year of the Noumea Accord.

Opinions diverged most sharply over the future of New Caledonia. The pro-France group is clearly opposed to independence demands. One group even floated the idea of a third Accord that would defer an independence vote yet again. This proposal was rejected outright by pro-independence groups. In the end, the meeting simply noted a French commission had visited New Caledonia to clarify the statutory implications of the major options for the future. These are: independence, some form of association with France, and continued integration. The Paris attendees agreed to set up a timetable aiming at significant progress by the next Committee meeting in October this year, well before the 2017 French national elections.
 
There are also profound differences of opinion over who should be eligible to vote on independence; so much so that Kanak leader Rock Wamytan has raised the issue of voter eligibility with the UN Decolonisation Committee. To preserve the rights of indigenous and long-term white settlers, the Accord restricts voting in provincial elections to those resident before 1988. Similarly, only those resident before 1994 are eligible to vote in the independence referendum. There have been allegations both that some ineligible voters have been incorrectly included on the electoral roll, and other eligible voters not included. In all, about 3000 people were thought to have been affected. The issue has so far prompted an exceptional Committee meeting in July 2015, and a report by a French expert. There was progress at last week's meeting, where agreement on an approach to managing the different views reduced the list of disputed names to 1062. But it is notable that Rock Wamytan has already expressed continuing concerns.

Under the complex schedule by which France will hand over responsibilities to the local government, many transfers have been made, although the timing of the transfer of so-called Article 27, which covers security responsibilities, is still controversial. Those meeting last week agreed to refer the matter to the French State Council for judgment. The French State cautioned that an organic law may be required. This would be complex legislation that would have to be effected before the 2017 elections in France.

Further agreement was made on progressing the many development contracts financed by France that underpin the Noumea Accord process. In this context, greater attention is to be focused on the chronic social problems among youth (implicitly indigenous Kanak youth).

Finally, and unusually, a second day was added to consider the serious issues raised by the global collapse in the price of nickel.

Together with technical problems, the nickel price has affected production in New Caledonia's two new multi-billion dollar nickel plants and this has had knock on effects on the financing of the economic re-balancing in favour of the Kanak heartland, which is at the core of the Noumea Accord. In a Common Declaration, the Committee last week agreed to 'political dialogue' within the next six months, and called for further 'solidarity' between the three major private company players (French SLN, Brazilian Vale, and Canada's Glencore). It agreed to address urgently the sensitive question of export destinations, given the recent demise of one of the principal export destinations, Australia's QNI. And the French State was urged to take a stronger role, given its role as shareholder in ERAMET/SLN, in addressing technical problems and investment in the one major current producer, SLN at Doniambo.

With so many differences to resolve, and so much work to do, before the all important 2018 referendum, it would be easy to underestimate the achievements of this latest Committee meeting. Bu while it only managed some small steps, they were forward steps; no mean feat in New Caledonia these days.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Sekundo