The Senate approved on Tuesday a sensitive constitutional revision concerning the expansion of the electoral body of the provincial election of New Caledonia, a measure which exacerbates tensions between loyalists and separatists in the archipelago, mired in a deep economic crisis.

The Upper House, dominated by an alliance of the right and the center, adopted this constitutional bill at first reading with 233 votes for and 99 against, despite the opposition of the three left-wing groups who denounced the “forcible passage ” of the government.

Quite technical, this constitutional revision is as decisive as it is contested. This involves allowing all natives of New Caledonia, as well as residents who have lived there for at least ten years, to vote in provincial elections, essential in the archipelago where the three provinces hold a large part of the powers. Established in 1998 by the Nouméa Agreement, the electorate for this ballot is in fact frozen, which has the consequence, twenty-five years later, of depriving the provincials of the right to vote, nearly one in five voters.

This constitutional bill must now be adopted in the same terms in the National Assembly, before being approved by all the parliamentarians meeting in congress in Versailles at the beginning of the summer, by three-fifths of the votes cast.

Political and economic crisis

But this legislative aspect, examined 17,000 kilometers from Nouméa, remains above all linked to a very flammable local context. The institutional future of New Caledonia remains in suspense: negotiations between independence and non-independence movements have been at a standstill for several months, while the next provincial election is supposed to be held before December 15.

The economic situation is just as sensitive, with the nickel sector in great difficulty and a controversial fuel tax project, finally withdrawn at the request of the New Caledonian government and its pro-independence president Louis Mapou after several days of blocking fuel depots. .

Several thousand supporters of the independence of New Caledonia (6,000 according to the High Commission of the Republic of the archipelago, 30,000 according to the organizers) demonstrated Tuesday in Nouméa against their “marginalization”, continuing to oppose this constitutional reform which could upset the balance of political power to their disadvantage.

“Avoid the spark that will set the entire archipelago ablaze”

The Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, conversely defends “a balanced compromise formula, respectful of democracy and international commitments” of France. But, if the principle of a thaw seems to have consensus in Parliament, the method used by the government exasperates the opposition, notably the left.

“By choosing to go through force, the government refuses to rediscover the spirit of impartiality which should guide its choices,” regretted Senator Corinne Narassiguin (Socialist Party), pleading for a constitutional revision to take place only after the signing of a global local agreement on the institutional future of New Caledonia, “to avoid the spark that will set the entire archipelago ablaze”.

The senatorial right, the leading political force in the chamber, for its part validated the date of the elections for December 15 at the latest, but had several amendments adopted in order to “relax” the process, against the advice of the government.

The electoral process may thus be suspended until the last ten days before the vote, in the event that an overall agreement is found. The government would have preferred the July 1 deadline, sometimes perceived locally as an ultimatum. “It was useful to loosen the grip on the discussion so that this would not be a deadline, or even a date of censorship, and so that an agreement could be reached between the parties at any time,” argued Les Républicains senator François -Christmas Buffet.