Significant transfer of authority from France
NOUMEA, New Caledonia
New Caledonia’s Congress has on Monday endorsed unanimously a significant progress in the French territory’s autonomy process with a now-approved takeover of such key sectors as secondary education, private primary education, police and security as well as domestic maritime and air transports. In what Congress Speaker Harold Martin labelled a "historic session", the extraordinary meeting is another milestone in the implementation of the autonomy Nouméa Accord, signed in May 1998, which sets out a road map for New Caledonia’s emancipation path.It sets out a gradual process of transfer of powers from metropolitan France to local authorities and a referendum on independence that could take place any time between 2014 and 2018.
Other powers and competences had earlier been transferred locally, like primary education, labour, external trade and mining. But Martin said this week’s vote was the first time the latest move was directly implemented by the local Congress. Now that the transfers have been approved in principle, they are expected to be implemented not later than January 1, 2012. In the case of domestic maritime and domestic air transports, the deadlines are respectively January 1, 2011 and 2013. Other transfers in the pipeline would directly touch on commercial law, civil law, higher education and telecom.
Reacting to the vote, New Caledonia’s President Philippe Gomès said the unanimous vote took place in favour precisely because the French government had confirmed it would provide the funds to implement such transfers and to run those public service sectors. In the case of secondary education, the estimated cost amounted to a yearly 46 billion French Pacific Francs (CFP, 577 million US dollars), including the salaries of some 4,500 teachers.
But Gomès also stressed that it was now, most importantly, up to New Caledonia’s population to assume ownership of the autonomy Nouméa Accord. "Our country’s common destiny will be built in our country and in our classrooms", he told local media.
In July this year, as the French Parliament was debating on New Caledonia’s emancipation issue, French minister for overseas countries and territories Marie-Luce Penchard stressed that New Caledonia’s transfer of powers, as enshrined in the 1998 autonomy Nouméa Accord, should not be seen as a an "abandonment" of the French Pacific dependency. But Penchard, while reassuring on the transfer process, also pointed out at the time that at one stage or another, concerned entities had to take responsibility for and appropriate their autonomy process. Those remarks were unencrypted by French media as amounting to a kind of "you can’t eat your cake and have it".
Pro-French parties in New Caledonia have in past months insisted that the "transfer" process should at no stage be "detrimental" or entail adverse impacts on the population and to its "quality of life". In particular reference to the secondary education sector, debates have been rife in recent months with some expressing concerns that transferring this power to local authority and therefore from the French education ministry would lead to what has often been referred to as a "coconut Baccalaureate" with lesser value on the job market, locally, nationally, regionally and internationally. Another part of the agreed transfer is civil security, for an estimated 7.3 million US dollars.
In July this year, the French High Commission in Nouméa announced that during the 2008 financial year, France has pumped over two billion US dollars into New Caledonia. This represents an increase compared to French direct injections in the previous year (1.98 billion US dollars). The bulk of the yearly injection is dedicated to operating expenses of French public services and the salaries of the public servants. The total also takes into account the current tax exemption scheme that allows investors into New Caledonia to benefit from significant fiscal holidays, for an estimated total of some 95 million US dollars.