Oui ou non: New Caledonia set for fresh vote on independence from France
It’s the final week of campaigning and two flags fly above the competing rallies, concerts, and campaign meetings: the French tricolour and the multi-coloured flag of Kanaky.
On Sunday, voters in New Caledonia will go to the polls for a second referendum on the political future of the French Pacific dependency.
More than 180,000 long-term residents of New Caledonia are registered to vote “Yes” for independence or “No” to remain within the French Republic.
Voting is not compulsory, so turnout will be crucial. Supporters and opponents of independence are on the streets this week in a final effort to mobilise their bases and convince uncertain citizens to participate on referendum day.
An accord … and a vote
First colonised by France in 1853, the islands of New Caledonia – just 1,500km off the coast of Australia – remain a French colonial dependency. The indigenous Melanesian people, known as Kanak, make up nearly 40% of the population of 271,000 people.
They live alongside the descendants of European settlers and indentured Indochinese labourers, as well as more recent migrants from France, Wallis and Futuna, Vanuatu and other French dependencies.
The overwhelming majority of indigenous Kanak support independence from France and back the coalition of independence parties – the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS).
But to win the referendum, the FLNKS and other pro-independence groups must win support from non-Kanak voters. Today, many New Caledonians are looking to build trade and tourism ties to Pacific neighbours, and transcend old divisions.
After violent clashes in the mid-1980s, political leaders in New Caledonia signed a series of agreements to end the conflict. In May 1998, the French government, the FLNKS, and anti- independence leaders signed the Noumea Accord.
The agreement, now entrenched in the French constitution, sets out a 20-year transition towards decolonisation. It included the creation of new political institutions, the transfer of legislative authority from Paris to Noumea, and measures for economic and social rebalancing between New Caledonia’s three provinces, in the North, South and Loyalty islands.
The Noumea Accord includes unique decolonisation provisions: at the end of 20 years, long-term residents could vote on New Caledonia’s future political status and the transfer of sovereign powers over defence, foreign policy, currency, police and courts.
If voters rejected independence in a first referendum, the accord allows for a second, and even a third referendum. The new name proposed for an independent state – should that ultimately be supported – is Kanaky-New Caledonia.
In the lead-up to the first referendum in November 2018, pundits predicted there would be a strategic defeat for the independence movement. Opinion polls forecast less than 30% support for independence.
The final results shocked supporters of France. While 56.6% of voters agreed to remain within the French Republic, the stronger-than-expected result of 43.3% for independence gave heart to the FLNKS and paved the way for this Sunday’s second referendum.
But this week’s vote is not simply a replay of the 2018 poll.
The strong support for independence in the first referendum raised fears amongst many European voters, who have rallied round the bleu-blanc-rouge tricolour.
Conservative leaders created “The Loyalists” – an unwieldy alliance of six anti-independence parties united largely by their support for France.
Thierry Santa, president of New Caledonia and a leading member of The Loyalists coalition, said mobilising voters was crucial.
“Amongst the 33,000 people who didn’t vote last time, the vast majority live in greater Noumea. I think a proportion of these people, who thought the result would be 70-30, didn’t bother to vote. But I think that the result in 2018 really disappointed them, and that will mobilise them to get out and vote the next time.”
But turnout could be boosted within the independence movement, too.
In 2018, smaller groups like the left-wing Parti Travailliste and USTKE trade union confederation called for “non-participation” in the referendum. This year, they are campaigning for a yes vote, which should increase turnout in their Northern and Loyalty Islands strongholds.
More than 11% of the population are migrants from other Pacific islands, such as Tahiti, Vanuatu, and Wallis and Futuna. Historically, the large Wallisian community has supported the anti-independence parties, but a younger generation is now debating its future in the Melanesian nation.
A new party, Eveil océanien, established in March 2019 after the first referendum, has called on Polynesian voters to make their own decision to vote yes or no, rather than follow the European-dominated Loyalist alliance.
Through action on housing, jobs and improving conditions in squatter settlements, the independence movement has sought to build links within islander communities.
Independence ‘breathing down our necks’
The global coronavirus pandemic has added another element of uncertainty.
With France suffering more than 31,000 deaths from Covid-19, there are loyalist concerns the new French government under the prime minister, Jean Castex, is distracted by domestic matters, even as debate sharpens in New Caledonia over the future relationship with Paris.
With just 28 cases of Covid-19, the government of New Caledonia has set up strict quarantine measures for international travellers.
Under pressure from Kanak leaders, the government still maintains strong border controls, even though the closures and global recession have disrupted tourism, transport and the export of nickel, New Caledonia’s key resource.
Conservative politician Philippe Gomes, who represents New Caledonia in the French National Assembly, argues a strong Yes vote would be a “powerful psychological blow”, even if it didn’t achieve a majority.
“The same is true for our [loyalist] movement: we want to hold steady or increase our score. If they manage to increase their Yes vote by two or three per cent, our people will feel the independence movement breathing down their necks.”
Roch Wamytan, speaker of New Caledonia’s Congress and a veteran member of the largest independence party Union Calédonienne, says he is hopeful a surge of support from younger Kanak and islander voters will boost the Yes cause.
“I’m not sure whether we’ll get more than 50% and may have to wait until the third referendum, but we certainly hope to get a few more percentage points … this will strengthen us in the discussions that we will have to undertake with the French state.”
Ultimately though, within the FLNKS, confidence is supreme. From their campaign booklet promoting the Yes vote: “The path to independence and sovereignty is inevitable.”