It’s the last week of the campaign and two flags fly above competing rallies, concerts and campaign meetings: the French tricolor and the multicolored Kanaky flag.
On Sunday, voters in New Caledonia will go to the polls for a second referendum on the political future of French dependence on the Pacific.
Over 180,000 long-term residents of New Caledonia are registered to vote “Yes” for independence or “No” to stay in the French Republic.
Voting is not compulsory, so the turnout will be crucial. Independence supporters and opponents are in the streets this week in a final push to mobilize their bases and convince uncertain citizens to participate on referendum day.
An agreement … and a vote
First colonized by France in 1853, the islands of New Caledonia – just 1,500 km off the Australian coast – remain a French colonial dependency. The indigenous Melanesian people, known as Kanak, make up nearly 40% of the population of 271,000.
They live alongside the descendants of European settlers and Indo-Chinese contract workers, as well as more recent migrants from France, Wallis and Futuna, Vanuatu and other French dependencies.
The overwhelming majority of indigenous Kanaks support the independence of France and support the coalition of independence parties – the Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS).
But to win the referendum, the FLNKS and other pro-independence groups must gain the support of non-Kanak voters. Today, many New Caledonians are seeking to forge trade and tourism links with their Pacific neighbors and to transcend old divisions.
After violent clashes in the mid-1980s, New Caledonian political leaders 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 enshrined in the French Constitution, provides for a 20-year transition towards decolonization. It includes the creation of new political institutions, the transfer of legislative power from Paris to Nouméa and economic and social rebalancing measures between the three provinces of New Caledonia, in the North, in the South and in the Loyalty Islands.
The Noumea Accord includes unique decolonization provisions: after 20 years, long-time residents could vote on New Caledonia’s future political status and the transfer of sovereign powers in matters of defense, foreign policy, money, police and justice.
While voters rejected independence in a first referendum, the deal allows for a second or even a third referendum. The proposed new name for an independent state – should it ultimately be supported – is Kanaky-New Caledonia.
Ahead of the first referendum in November 2018, experts predicted that there would be a strategic defeat for the independence movement. Opinion polls predict less than 30% support for independence.
The final results shocked the supporters of France. While 56.6% of voters agreed to stay in the French Republic, the stronger-than-expected result of 43.3% for independence gave courage to the FLNKS and paved the way for Sunday’s second referendum.
But this week’s vote isn’t just a replay of the 2018 poll.
The strong support for independence in the first referendum raised fears among many European voters, who rallied around the blue-white-red tricolor.
Conservative leaders created “Les Loyalistes” – an unwieldy alliance of six anti-independence parties united in large part by their support for France.
Thierry Santa, president of New Caledonia and a prominent member of the Loyalist coalition, said mobilization of voters was crucial.
“Among the 33,000 people who did not vote the last time, the vast majority live in Greater Nouméa. I think some of those people, who thought the result would be 70 to 30, didn’t bother to vote. But I think the result of 2018 really disappointed them, and that will mobilize them to come out and vote next time.
But participation could also be increased within the independence movement.
In 2018, smaller groups like the left-wing Labor Party and the USTKE trade union confederation called for a “non-participation” in the referendum. This year, they are campaigning for a yes, which should increase turnout in their northern strongholds and the Loyalty Islands.
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 anti-independence parties, but a younger generation is now debating its future in the Melanesian nation.
A new party, Oceanian Awakening, created in March 2019 after the first referendum, called on Polynesian voters to make their own decision to vote yes or no, rather than follow the loyalist alliance dominated by Europe.
By acting on housing, employment and improving conditions in squatter settlements, the independence movement sought to forge links within island communities.
Independence “breathes in our neck”
The global coronavirus pandemic has added another element of uncertainty.
As France suffers from more than 31,000 deaths from Covid-19, there are loyalist concerns that the new French government under Prime Minister Jean Castex is distracted by home affairs, even as the debate s ‘is stepping up in New Caledonia on future relations with Paris.
With just 28 cases of Covid-19, the government of New Caledonia has put strict quarantine measures in place for international travelers.
Under pressure from Kanak rulers, the government still maintains strong border controls, even though closures and the global recession have disrupted tourism, transportation, and the export of nickel, New Caledonia’s key resource.
Conservative politician Philippe Gomes, who represents New Caledonia in the French National Assembly, argues that a strong Yes vote would be a “powerful psychological blow” even if it fails to secure a majority.
“The same is true for our [loyalist] movement: we want to stay stable or increase our score. If they manage to increase their yes vote by two or three percent, our people will feel the independence movement sweeping through their necks.
Roch Wamytan, president of the Congress of New Caledonia and a veteran member of the largest independence party, the Union Calédonienne, says he hopes a wave of support from young Kanak and island voters will strengthen the cause of Yes .
“I’m not sure we get more than 50% and maybe we will have to wait for the third referendum, but we certainly hope to get a few more percentage points … that will strengthen us in the discussions we will have to undertake with the state. French. “
Ultimately, however, within the FLNKS, trust is supreme. Extract from their campaign booklet promoting the Yes: “The road to independence and sovereignty is inevitable.”