Nov 23, 2020 Last Updated 12:34 AM, Nov 23, 2020

Voters stay with France but support for independence increases

For the second time in as many years, voters in New Caledonia have narrowly decided against independence for the French Pacific dependency.

Provisional results issued by the French High Commission in Noumea show 53.26% of New Caledonians voted to remain within the French Republic, while 46.74% voted for independence. Official results for the referendum on self-determination will be gazetted later today by the referendum control commission. 

Voters across New Caledonia’s three provinces were asked: ‘Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?’

Throughout the day, there were long lines at many polling booths across the Pacific territory. The French High Commission reported a participation rate of 85.64%, an increase of more than 4% from a previous referendum held in November 2018.

There can be up to three referendums on the territory’s political status under the Noumea Accord, a 1998 agreement between the French State, anti-independence leaders and the independence coalition Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS).

Sunday’s vote saw support for independence rise by 3.4 per cent, with the Yes vote increasing in 31 of 34 municipalities compared to the previous referendum in 2018. The vote for independence was strongest amongst the indigenous Kanak people in the Northern and Loyalty Islands Provinces, but FLNKS leaders welcomed small but significant shifts in areas that have long been bastions of anti-independence sentiment in the Southern Province, such as the capital Noumea and major towns such as Mont Dore, Dumbea and Paita.

As the polls closed, Union Calédonienne President Daniel Goa welcomed the high turnout, calling “on each citizen not to be overwhelmed by emotions and to welcome the result in a peaceful atmosphere.”

President of New Caledonia Thierry Santa, a leader of the anti-independence coalition The Loyalists, welcomed the result and the commitment of New Caledonians to the French Republic.

With the narrow majority voting against independence, the political status quo under the Noumea Accord is maintained, including the multiparty Government of New Caledonia, the provincial assemblies and legislative powers transferred from Paris to New Caledonia’s Congress, even as France retains control of defence, currency, and the judicial system.

Soon after the provisional results were released, French President Emmanuel Macron broadcast a short statement from Paris, saying: “New Caledonians confirmed their wish to keep New Caledonia within France. This is a mark of confidence in the French Republic. I also hear the voice of those who are driven by the desire for independence. We will all build together the New Caledonia of tomorrow."

Macron called for dialogue between supporters and opponents of independence and said “a third referendum is possible.”

Speaking on television after Macron’s speech was broadcast in New Caledonia, President Santa expressed disappointment there weren’t “more concrete initiatives” from the French State in aftermath of referendum, given the ongoing polarisation in the territory.

Despite their loss, the result has buoyed the independence movement. FLNKS leaders have already stated they want full implementation of the Noumea Accord, suggesting that New Caledonia will continue towards a third referendum in 2022.

On Sunday, long-term residents in New Caledonia will go to the polls, to vote in a referendum on the political status of the French Pacific dependency. For New Caledonia’s independence movement, it’s just one more step on the long path to sovereignty and nationhood.

At a time of economic uncertainty during a global pandemic and recession, many voters may worry whether it’s the right time for change. But for Kanak leader Paul Neaoutyine, whether now or later, “our accession to sovereignty is inevitable.”

This is the second referendum to be held under the Noumea Accord, an agreement signed in May 1998 by the French state, anti-independence leaders and the independence coalition Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS).

The first referendum under the Noumea Accord was held in November 2018, with conservative politicians predicting the independence movement would only get 30 per cent support. However the final result showed 43 per cent in favour of independence, while nearly 57 per cent voted to remaining within the French Republic. Despite the victory for those opposed to independence, the size of the Yes vote disheartened many conservatives and opened the way for this Sunday’s second referendum.

Roch Wamytan is Speaker of the Congress of New Caledonia and a veteran member of the independence party Union Calédonienne, or UC. Asked whether the independence movement can win, he responds cautiously: “I am hopeful that we will increase our score. I’m not sure whether we’ll get more than 50 per cent and may have to wait until the third referendum, but we certainly hope to get a few more percentage points beyond the 43 per cent obtained in 2018. This will strengthen us in the discussions that we will have to undertake with the French state.”

If a majority of voters say Yes on Sunday, the FLNKS has proposed a three year transition to nationhood. This would involve negotiations with the French government over the transfer of sovereign powers such as defence, foreign policy, currency and the justice system; the signing of partnerships with France on nationality and dual nationality; seeking membership of the United Nations, World Bank and other multilateral institutions; and guaranteeing funding to replace the many French public servants who staff the local administration.

If there’s a majority against independence, the political status quo is retained. Under the Noumea Accord, however, a No vote opens the way to a third referendum in 2022, and the FLNKS has already stated they will continue down the path to decolonisation.

Kanak politician Roch Wamytan says that the shock result in 2018 led to the formation of a conservative alliance of six anti-independence parties, dubbed “The Loyalists”, who want to roll back the achievements of the Noumea Accord.

“Last time, the anti-independence camp was almost drunk, intoxicated by opinion polls that suggested the No vote could be as high as 75 or 80 per cent,” Wamytan told me. “Many anti-independence people were quite reassured by the polling. But the final result on the night of 4 November 2018 showed quite the contrary. They were delirious in their dream of burying the call for independence. Even 30 years after the Matignon Accords, the desire for independence amongst the Kanak people was still very strong.”

Wamytan says that debate has sharpened since then: “This time, the anti-independence groups are more on the offensive. This was also reflected in the May 2019 elections, especially amongst the Europeans of the suburbs [of the capital Noumea]. When Madame Backes and her group got control of the Southern Province, they went on the offensive against the Kanak.”

Louis Mapou is leader of the Union Nationale pour l’Indépendance, the UNI parliamentary group in New Caledonia’s Congress. He agrees that this year’s debate is more polarised. Mapou also dismisses pledges by the French government to remain impartial above the fray: “As a partner, the French state has become biased in favour of a No vote for the referendum on 4 October.”

Just three months before the vote, French President Emmanuel Macron reshuffled his cabinet, appointing Jean Castex as his new Prime Minister. It took Castex until this week to make a parliamentary statement on New Caledonia, stunning supporters and opponents of independence alike by the apparent disinterest. For months, UC President Daniel Goa has been sharply critical of new French Prime Minister: “Since his appointment, we have had no discussion, no exchanges. He is not interested in this territory. President Macron has also sent us a high commissioner who is nothing more than a governor, and who lacks the profile for New Caledonia, which is in a process of emancipation and decolonisation.”

The FLNKS has long provided a framework to calm the often fractious relationship between its two largest members: Union Calédonienne and the Parti de Libération Kanak. This year, there is unity in action for the referendum campaign, with local Committees of Citizens and Nationalists in each municipality uniting independence supporters across party lines.

Outside the FLNKS, a number of smaller parties supporting independence have also joined the campaign. During the 2018 referendum campaign, the left-wing Party Travailliste, or PT, and the trade union confederation USTKE advocated “non-participation”, criticising concessions by the FLNKS and arguing that only the colonised Kanak people should vote. This year, however, both PT and USTKE are calling for a Yes vote, joining with other indigenous activists to form the Mouvement Nationaliste pour la Souveraineté de Kanaky (MNSK). Although smaller than the FLNKS, the MNSK will mobilise pockets of support amongst those members who abstained last time in the rural north and Loyalty Islands.

PT’s Louis Kotra Uregei says the objective is “to truly build the case [traditional house] of Kanaky, to welcome all those who have come to live with the Kanak people and become the people of Kanaky. Our struggle is not just for the Kanak, but for all those who have been recognised as ‘the victims of history’ – people who have been in the country for a long time, and who face the same problems as the Kanak face today.”

The 2018 referendum reflected the broad polarisation of New Caledonia’s politics, with most Kanak supporting independence and most non-Kanak opposed. The FLNKS must draw support from non-indigenous voters to win the referendum, given the Kanak people only make up 40 per cent of New Caledonia’s population, and a minority of Kanak voters are still reluctant to support independence.

There are signs of change however amongst younger voters, in rural areas, and for the many islanders who have migrated to New Caledonia from Vanuatu, Tahiti and Wallis and Futuna.

The creation in March 2019 of a new political party Eveil océanien, or EO, highlights the desire to transcend old divisions amongst younger voters. Drawing support from the large Wallisian and Futunan community, EO has created an “islander majority” in Congress, leading to the re-election of independence leader Roch Wamytan as head of the legislature. For the first time, EO has said its supporters should decide for themselves whether to vote Yes or No, a significant shift from the historic loyalty to France in the Wallisian community.

There are also significant cultural and political shifts in the Northern Province, which has been managed by a pro-independence administration for more than 30 years. The experience of living and working together is slowly changing opinions amongst Caldoche farmers – the descendants of French settlers who have lived in the north for generations, and who were bitterly opposed to independence during the 1980s.

Provincial president Paul Neaoutyine is the long-time leader of the Parti de Libération Kanak and the UNI parliamentary group. In an interview with Le Monde, Neaoutyine highlighted the economic “rebalancing” created by the Noumea Accord, with his administration focussed on reducing social and economic inequality in the rural north: “In the Northern Province, where I preside, we make sure that the benefit of our political actions goes to these people, and not in the pockets of a privileged minority. The law prioritising local employment would never have existed without the struggle of the independence movement. But it benefits all the citizens of the country, not only Kanak.”

Patricia Goa is a key adviser to the provincial president, and an elected UNI member in the national Congress.

“Today, we understand that we’re not only talking for the Kanak people,” she said. “The important thing to say is that even if we Kanak are a majority of independence supporters, it’s really a process for all New Caledonians living in Kanaky. It’s not just for us that we are struggling today. Let’s not create opposition amongst all the people living on this land. We’re not just talking about a people, we’re talking about a nation.”

Since the 1970s, a key objective of the independence movement has been to break French control over the mining industry and nickel smelting, the key economic sectors within New Caledonia. For decades, successive governments in Paris guaranteed a monopoly over smelting to the French corporation ERAMET and its local subsidiary Société le Nickel, which operates the Doniambo smelter in the capital.

The signing of the Noumea Accord in May 1998 was preceded by a deal that allowed the transfer of strategic deposits of high-grade nickel ore to the Northern Province, through its development agency SOFINOR and the SMSP mining company. This opened the way for the construction of a new nickel smelter at Koniambo in the north of the country – a major project that many conservatives predicted would never be realised.

Living in the tribe of Baco, outside the provincial capital Koohne, Patricia Goa has seen the rural north transformed by the construction of the smelter in a joint venture between the province, SMSP and the transnational corporation Glencore. Goa stresses that SOFINOR and SMSP hold 51 per cent control of Koniambo Nickel SAS, an unprecedented deal for a resource project in Melanesia.

“KNS is a major player in the economic rebalancing of our country,” she said. “New Caledonia holds one quarter of the world’s nickel and the nickel sector is the largest employer in New Caledonia. But nickel resources are not renewable. We really have to think about how are working for future generations – that’s what our cultural heritage is saying.”

To add value to New Caledonia’s vast mineral resources, the FLNKS have looked beyond simply exporting ore to traditional markets in France, Japan and Australia. The Northern provincial administration has now established offshore smelters in South Korea and China, through joint ventures between SMSP and the Korean company Posco and the Chinese corporation Yinchuan.

President of New Caledonia Thierry Santa, a leader of the anti-independence Loyalist alliance, recognises that historic differences between elements of the independence movement are being replaced by unity over resources policy.

“The attitude taken by Union Calédonienne – the largest pro-independence party – about control of the minerals sector has sharply radicalised compared to the past,” Santa told me. “The UNI has always been steadfast in its policy on the mining industry, but what we’ve seen over the last month is the UC President moving much closer to the policy expressed by UNI and the Northern Province.

“Until now, UC had always been more pragmatic and less doctrinaire,” Santa said. “They recognised the necessity of maintaining mining across the territory, and the need for diversity of production – for domestic use, for export, and for use by the overseas smelters. Now we see a united policy from all parts of the independence movement opposed to the export of ore, except to the overseas smelters.”

On 19 September, hundreds of young demonstrators marched through central Noumea bearing the multi-coloured flag of Kanaky, calling for a Yes vote. But the vibrant protest masked a more serious side to young Kanak, who see training and education as a crucial part of the struggle.

“Even if we are losing our bearings, we must continue to go to school to become better trained adults,” 24-year-old Pauline told journalists. “When you have a degree, you have more chance to build our country, to move it forward. You have to be serious. You can’t just go crying ‘Kanaky’ everywhere and expect to change things.”

As hundreds of first-time voters turn out in 2020, it’s worth remembering that the Noumea Accord was signed before they were born. The armed clashes of the mid-1980s are ancient history for younger voters, who have grown up under a multi-party government that includes both supporters and opponents of independence.

Despite this, the 2018 referendum saw a massive turn-out of young Kanak voters, and the FLNKS is working hard to mobilise people who are wary of old rivalries amongst politicians. Last July, FLNKS spokesperson Daniel Goa called for a general mobilisation of all political forces, calling on young people to participate: “Our youth must get involved and be active at local level. It is their fight and it will be their victory.”

Today, as a leading Yes campaigner in the north, Magalie Tingal says the independence movement has been forced to adapt to 21st Century realities, using social media and talking to youth who are wary of political division.

“We can feel on the ground that people want more information,” she said. “There are plenty of young intellectual Kanak who want more and more information about what independence means. Campaigning for independence in this millennium, we use a lot of social media, and even ten years ago we didn’t have that type of campaigning. People are listening but have done their own studies, so we can’t campaign like we did ten years ago.”

She highlights the need to decolonise minds as well as institutions: “Our elders put us on the path to decolonisation. But we are also talking about the decolonisation of our minds. Independence is scary for some people here, so we have to educate people through meetings, discussion and information. We are talking about living together.”

This referendum is framed by broader global realities. France has markedly improved its diplomatic relations with neighbouring Pacific states, undercutting historic support for the FLNKS. Australia – as the largest member of the Pacific Islands Forum – has forged a strategic partnership with Paris, seeing France as a bulwark against Chinese influence in the region. At the same time, the coronavirus pandemic has caused more than 31,000 deaths in France and led to border closures and economic downturn in New Caledonia. China is New Caledonia’s main export market, but US-China tensions and global recession create uncertainty in the nickel sector.

The No campaign mounted by the six-member Loyalist alliance seeks to roll back the economic, social and political advances created by the Noumea Accord. But the flourishing of bleu-blanc-rouge flags during the campaign belies the reality that many New Caledonians are looking beyond France towards Asia-Pacific partners like China, Korea and Australia for trade, tourism and services.

Charles Wea has represented the FLNKS in Australia and the Melanesian Spearhead Group, which unites nearby Melanesian nations. He says that an independent Kanaky-New Caledonia would maintain ties with France but build new relationships in the Pacific region.

“If New Caledonia were to become independent tomorrow, we would establish relations with countries that we share values with,” Wea said. “Secondly, we would build relations with countries where we have economic, political and cultural interests. For example, we already have an offshore smelter in Korea, so that’s the sort of country where we have to establish a bilateral relationship.”

Today, through the MSG and Pacific Islands Forum, New Caledonia has already built new trade and commercial ties to neighbours like Vanuatu and Fiji. The government of New Caledonia has begun to place representatives in French embassies in Canberra, Wellington, Suva, Port Vila and Port Moresby. Magalie Tingal argues: “For the FLNKS, independence doesn’t mean we close our doors to France or anyone. Independence opens us up to the international stage.”

Patricia Goa agrees that a Yes vote won’t lead to a rupture with France: “I’m not against France. I have spoken French since I was six years old, although I have my own language. I breathe French because of colonisation, that’s the fact. I know French history, maybe more than the French themselves. What we are saying is, we’ve come to a stage where the people are asking for sovereignty. What’s wrong with having cooperation with China and others? The difference is, we want to choose that relationship as a free state!”

Reporting for this article was supported by a Sean Dorney Grant for Pacific Journalism through the Walkley Public Fund

On 4 October, New Caledonians will vote in a referendum on self-determination, to determine the political status of the French Pacific dependency.

This is the second referendum to be held under the Noumea Accord, an agreement signed in May 1998 by the French state, anti-independence politicians and leaders of the independence coalition Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS).

The Noumea Accord created new political institutions for New Caledonia, transferred legislative and administrative powers from Paris to Noumea and promoted economic and social “rebalancing” between the territory’s three provinces. After a 20 year transition, long-term residents of New Caledonia could vote on the transfer of sovereign powers in a referendum on self-determination. But the Accord included a unique provision: if the first vote for independence was unsuccessful, a third of the members of the local Congress could call for a second and then a third referendum.

On 4 November 2018, voters in New Caledonia went to the polls for the first referendum under the Noumea Accord, which asked: “Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?”

In an unprecedented turnout, 56.67 per cent of voters decided to remain within the French Republic, while 43.33 per cent voted Yes for independence. These figures, with a clear majority opposing full sovereignty, could be read as a setback for New Caledonia’s independence movement. In reality, the size of the Yes vote disheartened supporters of the French Republic and opened the way for the second referendum in October.

However this month’s vote will not simply be a replay of the 2018 poll. There are a number of new elements that will affect the outcome, as well as the ongoing decolonisation process: a changed configuration of political parties; attempts to mobilise a large number of absentee voters; the failure of France’s new government to act with vigour and impartiality; and voter concerns about the future in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Mobilising voters

Voting is not compulsory in New Caledonia, so the level of turnout will be crucial. For the November 2018 referendum, participation rates varied across the country: 83 per cent in the Southern Province, 86 per cent in the North, but only 61 per cent in the Loyalty Islands (where the population is overwhelmingly Kanak).

From 174,165 people registered to vote in 2018, around 33,000 people did not turn out on the day, and there were also 1,143 void and 1,023 blank votes. Despite voter enrolment programs, hundreds of people claimed they could not vote because of delay and confusion over registration. Special polling booths were set up in Noumea for people from the outer islands living in the capital, but an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people found it difficult to register or access proxy votes.

Given the difference of only 18,000 votes in the final result in 2018, both supporters and opponents of independence are now seeking to mobilise support in this pool of uncommitted voters. The FLNKS aims for a higher turnout in the islands this time, the right-wing Loyalist alliance in the capital Noumea and surrounding towns.

In the lead up to the 2018 referendum, French media and polling organisations predicted that support for independence was waning. A series of opinion polls throughout 2018 stated the Yes vote would only reach between 15 and 34 per cent. Just days before voting, conservative politicians predicted a 70/30 result, expecting a strategic defeat for the independence movement.

However, as with the 2016 US presidential elections and the Brexit vote, the political elite misread the electorate. French partisans misjudged the strength of support for independence, especially amongst the colonised Kanak people. This was highlighted by the strong turnout of a younger generation who were not born at the time of the violent clashes between 1984-88, known as Les évènements, that ended with the 1988 Matignon-Oudinot Accords.

Partisans of the French Republic are eager not to make the same mistake in 2020, trying to mobilise conservative voters who didn’t bother to turn out in 2018.

Thierry Santa is President of New Caledonia and leader of the anti-independence  Rassemblement-Les Républicains party. Santa told Islands Business: “Our objective is to improve the tally achieved in the first referendum. 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.”

Veteran independence leader Roch Wamytan agrees the final result in 2018 stunned pundits and politicians from the anti-independence camp, and gave heart to the FLNKS to continue with the decolonisation process.

“Many anti-independence people were quite reassured by the polling in 2018,” he told me. “But the final result on the night of 4 November 2018 showed quite the contrary: that even after 30 years since the Matignon Accords, the desire for independence amongst the Kanak people was still very strong. This time, the anti-independence groups are more on the offensive. This was also reflected in the May 2019 elections, especially amongst the European voters from the suburbs. When Madame Backes and her group got control of the Southern Province, they went on the offensive against the Kanak.”

New political combinations

Since the previous vote, there have been significant reconfigurations in both political camps, and amongst the non-Kanak islander communities.

This year, six political parties opposed to independence have a forged an unwieldy alliance, dubbed “The Loyalists”, to run a coordinated campaign for a No vote. It includes the three parties of the governing Avenir en Confiance coalition, and three smaller groups (including the extreme-right Rassemblement National).

The Loyalists have issued a common platform that seeks to roll back many of the achievements of the Noumea Accord. They want to change the way laws can be proposed by membership of New Caledonia’s collegial, multi-party government; cut extra funding for rural areas and outlying islands; and change representation from the two Kanak-majority provinces in the national Congress. Some members of the alliance, such as President of the Southern Province Sonia Backes, have pushed for even more hard line policies, proposing the partition of the country – a clear breach of the Accord.

Calédonie Ensemble, led by Philippe Gomes, is the only significant anti-independence party that has refused to join The Loyalists. CE was the largest party in New Caledonia’s Congress between 2009-2019, but the shock result of the 2018 referendum discredited CE’s policy of engagement with the independence movement amongst conservative voters. The party faced internal splits and was punished at the polls during 2019 provincial elections and 2020 municipal elections.

CE is now running a separate No campaign from The Loyalists, with Gomes telling Islands Business: “Our No to independence is not a bleu-blanc-rouge No. When you look at their campaign materials, you see bleu-blanc-rouge flags everywhere. But we’re talking about this country, about New Caledonia. For this reason we couldn’t participate in their radical campaign, that is in part racist, very anti-Islander and very anti-independence. This can’t bring anything good to the country.”

In the independence camp, the left-wing Party Travailliste and the trade union confederation USTKE advocated “non-participation” in the 2018 referendum, arguing the colonised Kanak people alone should vote. This year, however, both are calling for a Yes vote, joining other indigenous activists as the Mouvement Nationaliste pour la Souveraineté de Kanaky (MNSK). Although smaller than the FLNKS, the MNSK will mobilise pockets of support in the rural north and Loyalty Islands who didn’t vote last time.

With indigenous Kanak at around 40 per cent of the population, however, the independence movement must draw support from other communities to win.

Historically, most Wallisian, Futunan and Tahitian voters have opposed independence, but there are significant changes in the Polynesian communities that make up more than 10% of the electorate. This is highlighted by the creation of a new political party Eveil Océanien (EO – Pacific Awakening) in March 2019. Two months later, the party won three seats in Congress and four in the Southern Province during May 2019 elections.

In the 54-member Congress, EO can swing its votes to either the Loyalist camp (25 seats) or the independence parties (26 seats) to create a majority. It has used this leverage to gain seats in the Government, Congressional Committees and Southern Provincial executive, and voted to re-elect Roch Wamytan as Speaker of Congress, creating an ‘islander majority’.

EO president Milakulo Tukumuli told Islands Business that Eveil Océanien wants to use its balance of force in the Congress to change the discussion.

“We haven’t created a movement to fight for independence or to fight for France – we’ve created a movement to fight poverty in New Caledonia,” Tukumuli said. “We are a country of 280,000 people, with mineral resources and three nickel smelters, but we have lots of people living in squatter settlements, they can’t feed their children and the children can’t get a good education. That’s what I’m fighting against.”

Rather than call for a No vote, the new Polynesian party has encouraged supporters to decide for themselves whether to vote Yes or No in October.

“For more than 30 years, the majority in the Congress – and therefore the government – has been opposed to independence,” Tukumuli said. “The independence movement calls for independence, but it has never managed the country. So we need to shake up this division and to share power, in order to see whether the independence movement can manage this responsibility, or not. So we decided to use our three votes to ensure that in both the Congress and the government, everyone has a say.”

Paris distracted

In the lead up to the 2018 referendum, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe allocated extensive time and political capital to New Caledonia, forging a consensus on the date for the referendum, the logistics of polling, who could vote and even the wording of the question. But just three months before this year’s referendum, President Emmanuel Macron reshuffled his Cabinet in Paris, appointing a new Prime Minister and Overseas Minister.

Conservative politicians have expressed concern that New Caledonia is not high on the agenda of the new government led by Jean Castex. CE’s Philippe Gomes told Islands Business: “In 2018, the government was very active. The Prime Minister and the President of the French Republic both visited, they spent hundreds of hours talking with everybody and the referendum was organised after a consensus had been forged. Everyone was on board, agreeing about the manner in which the vote would be held. For this reason, the result could not be questioned, nor was it questioned.

“Today, the French government hasn’t done its job and the process is under challenge,” Gomes added. “The independence movement doesn’t agree about the date of the referendum, nor the use of the bleu-blanc-rouge flag, nor the amount of time allocated for Loyalty Islanders to register to use the polling booths in Noumea. We haven’t agreed about anything.”

Roch Wamytan is Speaker of the Congress of New Caledonia and a long-time member of the largest independence party Union Calédonienne. He agrees that Paris is less engaged, at a time the French government struggles to cope with more than 31,000 deaths from COVID-19, post-Brexit EU debates and domestic protests over austerity.

 “In 2018, the French state issued a formal statement about what would happen in the case of a Yes vote or a No vote,” Wamytan said. “Last time, we participated in a series of meetings to discuss the sort of issues that would be put before the voters of New Caledonia in this statement. But this time, it seems that they just took the statement issued by Edouard Philippe, and just changed two or three sentences.”

At the same time, leaders of the independence movement complain that the French government is actively working against independence, in spite of pledges of impartiality. All parties accepted the result in 2018 – this may not be the case in 2020.

Social and economic woes

The current referendum campaign comes in the midst of economic uncertainty, the coronavirus pandemic, and international tensions over relations with China. New Caledonia controlled an early surge of COVID-19 from international travellers arriving in Noumea, with only 26 cases. However border closures have led to significant economic costs, with a decrease in international trade and tourism. There is uncertainty over future markets for New Caledonia’s vast reserves of nickel ore and the economic viability of the territory’s three nickel smelters – especially the Goro plant owned by the Brazilian corporation Vale.

In these uncertain times, opinion is shifting and divided. Some voters seek closer ties with the French Republic, hoping for ongoing funding, guarantees of French nationality and maintenance of the French colonial project. The majority of the Kanak people and other supporters of independence have a contrasting vision, believing independence will better allow them to manage the post-pandemic future of the Pacific nation. The vote on 4 October will not end this debate.

Predictions about the referendum turnout are complicated by a level of voter fatigue. In less than two years, New Caledonians have voted in the November 2018 referendum, May 2019 provincial elections, the first round of municipal elections in March 2020 and a second round in June 2020. Despite the high stakes on 4 October, some voters have had enough of politicians.

And the result? UC’s Roch Wamytan says: “I am hopeful that we will increase our score. I’m not sure whether we’ll get more than 50 per cent and may have to wait until the third referendum, but we certainly hope to get a few more percentage points beyond the 43 per cent obtained in 2018. This will strengthen us in the discussions that we will have to undertake with the French state.”

Given that a third referendum is possible under the Noumea Accord, CE’s Philippe Gomes agrees that the independence movement can advance its cause without gaining a majority.

“We know that the independence movement desperately wants to increase their score this time, because that would be a very powerful psychological blow for people opposed to independence,” Gomes said. “The same is true for our 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 neck. This is another element that explains the polarisation of debate at the moment.”

“We haven’t created a movement to fight for independence or to fight for France - we’ve created a movement to fight poverty in New Caledonia. That’s our struggle.”

That’s Milakulo Tukumuli, leader of Eveil océanien (Pacific awakening), one of the newest political parties in New Caledonia.

“We are a rich country of 280,000 people, with mineral resources and three nickel smelters,” he says. “But we have lots of people living in squatter settlements, they can’t feed their children and the children can’t get a good education. That’s what I’m fighting against.”

As long-term residents of the French Pacific dependency prepare to vote in a referendum on self-determination on 4 October, Eveil océanien has urged supporters to make their own decision, whether to vote for independence or to remain within the French Republic.

Historically, the large Wallisian and Futunan community in New Caledonia’s Southern Province has backed anti-independence parties, benefitting from jobs and welfare support provided by the governing conservative majority. But a younger generation of Wallisians are changing the political landscape, as they question the allegiances of their elders and look to building a future in the Melanesian nation.

Milakulo Tukumuli is symbolic of this change. Born in October 1984 in the east coast mining town of Thio, Tukumuli studied at the University of New Caledonia before travelling to Marseilles in France, to obtain a PhD in mathematics.

In November 2018, a first referendum under New Caledonia’s Noumea Accord showed a significant polarisation between voters, with a majority of the indigenous Kanak people supporting independence, but most non-Kanak voting No, preferring existing ties to France. This polarisation spurred Tukumuli and other young Wallisians to found the new party in March 2019.

With its direct appeal to Wallisian and Futunan voters and other islander communities, the new movement was quickly denounced as “communalist” and “divisive.” But in an interview with Islands Business, Tukumuli said they deliberately sought to target Polynesian voters.

“For more than 30 years, politics in New Caledonia has seen two blocs, one loyalist, the other in support of independence,” he said. “During these 30 years we’ve seen economic, social and political development in New Caledonia, but after all this time we need to draw up a balance sheet. These two blocs now need to work together to find better solutions. From the beginning, my idea was to create a different sort of politics. I decided to create a movement that will include both supporters and opponents of independence.”

Polynesian voters

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the space race and arms manufacture for the Vietnam War spurred a global nickel boom. With New Caledonia controlling an estimated 25 per cent of global nickel reserves, the demand for labour in the mining sector was met by significant migration from France and also from France’s Polynesian dependency of Wallis and Futuna. Today, there are more Wallisians and Futunans living in New Caledonia than remain in Wallis and Futuna itself.

The latest data on New Caledonia’s ethnic mix comes from the 2014 census, which shows more than 11 per cent of the population were non-Kanak islanders, from Wallis and Futuna (8.2 per cent); Tahiti (2.1 per cent); or Vanuatu (1 per cent). While indigenous Kanak (39.1 per cent) and Europeans (27 per cent) are the largest groups, nearly 15 per cent of the population identified as mixed-race or simply “New Caledonian.”

There are now generations of people with Polynesian heritage born in the capital Noumea and surrounding towns like Mont Dore, Paita and Dumbea and – despite pride in their culture – they see themselves as New Caledonian.

Eveil océanien has tapped into these new generations, drawing away supporters from anti-independence parties like Rassemblement-Les Républicains and Calédonie ensemble, as well as some independence activists from the Rassemblement démocratique océanien, which unites Wallisian supporters of independence as a member of the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS).

Just two months after its formation, EO contested the May 2019 elections for New Caledonia’s three provincial assemblies and national congress. As a journalist reporting on the campaign at the time, I saw that Tukumuli and other young leaders had struck a chord amongst many Polynesian voters. Addressing an election campaign meeting, Tukumuli argued that the time had come for Wallisians and other smaller communities to speak in their own voice, and no longer rely on the patronage of the European-led conservative parties.

“We have never revolted before, so they continue to take us for idiots,” he said. “We’ve never stood up for ourselves and so they’ve done what they’ve liked. We vote for them because we’re scared to vote for the Kanak, as if we’d turned into white people who detest the Kanak. Why should we do this?”

From a standing start, the party won four seats in the Southern Provincial Assembly and three in the Congress in the 2019 elections. With his PhD in mathematics, Tukumuli quickly saw that EO’s three seats gave it the balance of forces in the 54-member legislature. Twenty six members of the incoming Congress came from parties supporting independence, with another 25 from anti-independence parties (the conservative Avenir en Confiance coalition with 18 seats and the previously dominant Calédonie ensemble, which saw its representation halve from 15 to 7 seats).

New Caledonian researcher Pierre-Christophe Pantz has highlighted the way that EO has leveraged these pivotal votes to obtain positions at all levels of government: “This strength was quickly shown with the election of a pro-independence Speaker of the Congress for the first time in May 2019. Then in June 2019, through an alliance with the anti-independence coalition Avenir en Confiance, EO obtained a position for Vaimu’a Muliava as a member of the collegial Government of New Caledonia, as well as the post of Vice President of the Southern Province for Milakulo Tukumuli.”

Last year, Vaimu’a Muliava backed the Right’s candidate for President of New Caledonia, Thierry Santa. But this year, explains Pierre-Christophe Pantz, EO again swung its support behind the independence movement: “On 22 July, on the very eve of the annual re-election of the executive of New Caledonia’s Congress, EO announced that it would join the UC-FLNKS parliamentary group, giving this bloc 16 members. Combined with the other pro-independence members of Congress, this give the independence movement 29 seats, a majority in the Congress. This allowed Roch Wamytan to be re-elected as Speaker on 23 July 2020.”

A Pacific majority

A veteran member of the independence party Union Calédonienne (UC), Roch Wamytan used his acceptance speech to welcome “the islander majority that had brought me again to lead the premier political institution of the country.”

In an interview, Wamytan explained the significance of Eveil océanien’s decision: “We have created within the Congress what I’ve called a ‘majorité océanien’. This is not a pro-independence majority, but a recognition that the party led by Mr. Tukumuli is a party supported by islanders, a minority of whom support independence and a majority who do not.”

Calédonie ensemble leader Philippe Gomes expresses a wry admiration for the way the FLNKS leadership has reached out to the islander communities.

“Roch Wamytan, the President of the Congress, is very crafty,” Gomes told me. “He doesn’t talk about a pro-independence majority with Eveil océanien, he talks about a Pacific majority. To open the door, he talks about Pacific values and identity in order to build his political majority.”

During this referendum campaign, Calédonie ensemble is the only anti-independence party to stay outside of the six-member Loyalist alliance, while still campaigning for a No vote. Gomes blames the racism of the governing coalition for EO’s decision to forge this majority in Congress.

“When you hear the language of Avenir en Confiance, who are largely European, they only think of Kanaks as house girls or of Wallisians as builder’s labourers,” he said. “EO joined the Avenir ticket for the government of New Caledonia led by Thierry Santa and so one of their party is now a member of the government. At that point, we thought they’d chosen sides. But the radicalisation of language from the Loyalists pushed the Wallisians away bit by bit, to the point where they formed the parliamentary group with Union Calédonienne within the Congress.”

UC’s Roch Wamytan told Islands Business there were the two underlying elements that forged this parliamentary alliance: “Firstly, we share common values, the values of Pacific peoples and of Christianity like respect, hospitality, compassion, family. The second element is that we want to fight against social, cultural and economic inequality. This takes place in the schools, where our children do not do as well, or in the cultural sphere, where our dignity is not respected. In the economic sphere, there are issues of housing and social welfare that bind together this Pacific majority.”

There are more pragmatic reasons as well. To obtain staffing and financial resources, parties or coalitions in the 54-member Congress must have at least six members. Milakulo Tukumuli says that the decision to join the UC-FLNKS group was not a shift towards independence, but a strategic decision to build his party’s capacity.

“Because today we only have three members in the Congress, we can’t constitute a parliamentary group and we don’t have the means to work effectively,” Tukumuli said. “In every parliament of the world, if you’re an MP, you have staff who can help you with the job. But in New Caledonia, if you’re not in a group, you don’t have that support.

“Beyond this, if you’re not in a group, you don’t have the right to sit on parliamentary committees within the Congress. Now, as members of the UC-FLNKS group, we can participate in all the 11-member committees. Last year, each committee was divided 6-5. This year, because we are members of the group, each committee has five supporters of independence, five loyalists and one member of EO. That’s more representative of the Congress.”

Despite this, Roch Wamytan believes that EO’s decision is a crucial shift as the country moves to a decision on its future political status: “When EO voted for me as Speaker, it was a sign to the Wallisian community that they should not be scared of Kanak.”

Voting in referendum

In less than two weeks’ time, more than 180,000 people in New Caledonia will participate in the second referendum on self-determination under the Noumea Accord.

Because voting is not compulsory and the special referendum electorate is restricted to long-term residents, Tukumuli says EO is calling on people to turn out on 4 October: “We’re certainly telling people that they should go out and vote, because the future of those people who can’t register to vote depends on those who are actually voting. Go and vote - that’s the first thing we’ve said! The second thing we’ve said is vote for who you want, for the future that is good for you, and for New Caledonia tomorrow.”

However the party is not campaigning for either Yes or No, arguing that voters in the Wallisian and Futunan communities must make their own decision.

“We believe that this choice belongs to each individual,” Tukumuli said. “People can certainly ask us what independence might mean for the country, or what staying with France might mean. But the motto adopted by our party is ‘Be the captain of your own destiny.’ It’s up to everyone to decide what sort of New Caledonia they want for the future.”

Philippe Gomes suggests this policy could foreshadow an historic shift: “For the first time in the history of New Caledonia, the whole of the Wallisian community is not mobilising to vote No against independence. So on 4 October, it will be very interesting to see whether there is a shift towards abstention or towards Yes to independence. The mood in the community is very different to what we’ve seen before.”

Despite this, Tukumuli is very clear about his own position: “I’ve already made my personal opinion clear, but it doesn’t bind my party: I want New Caledonia to remain within France. Independence shouldn’t be the starting point; it should be the finish line. If we are capable of being independent, then choose independence, but if people say we’re ready for independence, I don’t agree.”

Tukumuli explained that EO’s executive includes both supporters and opponents of independence, so the party has pragmatically avoided divisions that would damage their long-term game plan: “The majority of people in the Wallisian and Tahitian communities do not support independence and would prefer that New Caledonia remains part of France. That’s the truth. But we don’t take a position in support of France, because that will scare away people who support independence. People are afraid though, and want to know whether they must vote. I hope that one day they won’t need people like us to tell them whether or not they should vote to stay with France.”

New alliances

Will the islander communities living in New Caledonia, from Wallis and Futuna, Tahiti and Vanuatu, eventually throw in their lot with the Kanak people, recognising the pan-Pacific ties that the late Epeli Hau’ofa championed in ‘Our Sea of Islands’?

Tukumuli says his vision is to get people working together, moving beyond old habits: “This is something that people must understand: to work with the independence movement is not the same as working for independence.”

He despairs that sections of the European community will punish any leader that tries to bridge the divide between supporters and opponents of independence.

“It’s important to say that when loyalists have tried to engage with the independence movement, they’ve been punished by voters at the next opportunity,” he said. “In 2011, hoping to work with the independence movement, Pierre Frogier supported the decision to raise two flags outside public buildings, the French flag and the flag of Kanaky. Look at what happened afterwards: he was punished by voters in 2014. In 2014, Calédonie ensemble came to the fore under Philippe Gomes. Throughout his term of office, he tried to work with the independence movement and for that he was punished by voters in the 2019 congressional elections.”

An older generation of Polynesians remember violent clashes with Kanak youth in the mid-1980s, when Right-wing agitators mobilised young, unemployed Wallisians as strong-arm militias against the FLNKS. In more recent times, there have been Wallisian-Kanak disputes in communities on the outskirts of Noumea, with conflicts over jobs, land, housing and welfare rights. Will significant numbers of Wallisian voters transcend these historic grievances?

New Caledonia’s President Thierry Santa told Islands Business that there is a section of the Wallisian and Futunan community who are more open to the independence movement’s language.

“There’s a fluidity that you can see amongst the younger generation that you don’t see with their elders,” he said. “Today’s Polynesians may be too young to have known the difficult times, with past clashes and tension between the Wallisian community and the Kanak. So they are more carried away by the sort of rhetoric that talks about ‘We the peoples of the Pacific, we can get by without France.’”

Santa sees this shift reflected in the even-handed position taken by EO for the referendum: “I don’t think this is a major shift towards independence. They are very well aware that a majority of their electorate are opponents of independence, so they maintain this policy of ambiguity for the moment. I don’t know if this will be maintained right to the end. We’ll see.”

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