Suddenly, the stakes just got a lot higher. The arrival of French President Emmanuel Macron in New Caledonia today — after more than a week of quasi-insurrectional violence — brings the delicate question of Australia’s diplomatic relations with France back to mind. How effectively Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has managed to reset the bilateral relationship is a moot point given the manner and impact of predecessor Scott Morrison’s disastrous AUKUS announcement a few years ago. This hand-in-hand with the decision to scrap a multibillion dollar defence contract to build submarines with France, without actually telling the French.

It’s hard to imagine Mr Albanese picking up the phone to consult, let alone advise Mr Macron, beyond the imperative of getting perhaps 300 Australians out of France’s crisis-torn Pacific Island territory, just a two-hour flight from Brisbane. That’s a shame, because there’s considerable shared Franco-Australian concern about the fate of the beautiful archipelago. The majority view of specialists in Paris this week is that the current French government has made major mistakes in its New Caledonia policy after some 40 years of rather successful appeasement.

That appeasement was initiated by the late Socialist Prime Minister Michel Rocard, a political mentor of Mr Macron, and a good friend of Australia, who put an end to the bloodshed of riots in the 1980s, also triggered by high-stakes electoral reform. This he did by instigating a step-by-step process towards self-determination under the so-called Matignon Accords, with the onus on relationship-building and forging a common identity, which morphed into the Noumea Agreement in 1998. These would conclude with a third and final independence referendum in December, 2021. But with the indigenous Kanak people then stricken by COVID — hundreds of deaths in a small population with unique rituals for burying the deceased — Kanak leaders asked for a modest 6 or 9-month delay (after 40 years!) before the third referendum was held. This was flatly denied at the time by the French government.

The current problems were ignited by the May 13 decision to pass local election reform, in faraway Paris not Noumea, so putting a metaphorical match to what could be called the Caledonian powder keg. The reform would mean an additional 25,000 non-Indigenous voters on the electoral role, or about one voter in five. Inevitably, this would revolutionise the domestic political equation, further diminishing the Kanak vote. In Australia, it has been de rigueur on both sides of politics to keep out of New Caledonian affairs, but the off-line view has tended to be that regional stability is paramount and that a French presence is its virtual guarantor. Simply put: were France no longer in New Caledonia and civilian strife erupted, would Australia be expected to get involved as the largest democracy in the region? The deeper question is: if France were to withdraw, would China, ultimately, seek to move in?

In a major way, your problem (France), would suddenly be our problem (Australia). Except that it already is to some extent. New Caledonia’s only major export is Nickel, used notably in electric vehicle batteries, and via the injection of vast sums of Chinese money, Indonesia has become the world market leader. According to the US Institute of Peace, the majority of Indonesia’s nickel mines, processing sites and supply arrangements are today controlled by Chinese groups. Deliberate overproduction, is stripping out international competition and pushing down the market price — by 45% in 2023. Usually overlooked, there is obvious commonality between the Australian colonial experience and that of France in New Caledonia, cited by a high-profile French academic on French radio this week.

Benoît Trépied, of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), said that France sought to establish a new society in New Caledonia exactly as did the British in Australia and New Zealand. He characterised the current strife, less as a matter of electoral reform, than a post-colonial question, still unresolved.

He said that according to the United Nations, New Caledonia was a country still awaiting de-colonisation. But would France granting it ultimately mean independence, he was asked on France Info. No, he said. In its vast majority, ‘the Kanaky’ would seek a brand of “associative independence”, whereby say, the justice system, currency and foreign policy would be reassigned to French oversight. On the China question, “Why would the Kanaky seek independence only to cede it to another colonial ruler?” There would obviously be more conversation with the French President for Mr Albanese in Australia’s own colonial experience. Except that there, well, we’ve just refused via the Voice referendum to even recognise our Indigenous brethren in the constitution, or vote for the creation of a minimalist external advisory council. Another bit of Australian policy to undermine our international credibility.

One wonders at the make-up of modern Australia, the shape and contour of its history since European settlement, if Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders still comprised 40 percent of the population, as do indigenous Kanaks in New Caledonia today.