Voters in the French territory of New Caledonia in the South Pacific narrowly rejected – for the second time – a proposal to break with Paris, choosing to remain loyal to the French Republic in a national referendum. But secession activists say the struggle for independence will continue.
As in 2018, the “no” to independence prevailed, this time from 53.3% to 46.7%, according to unofficial results declared by French President Emmanuel Macron.
But a markedly improved ‘yes’, up from 43% in the last referendum and now approaching the simple majority needed for secession, gave massive impetus to the campaign for independence and laid the groundwork for a third and final referendum on the issue in two of the years.
The push for independence – largely supported by the indigenous Kanak population of New Caledonia, which represents around 40% of the population – now appears to be a real possibility for 2022.
“The road to independence and sovereignty is inevitable,” promised the coalition of independence parties – the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) – as Sunday’s polls approach, and, despite their defeat, its leaders say they will. continue the secession campaign.
Roch Wamytan, president of the Congress of New Caledonia and a veteran member of the largest independence party, the Union Calédonienne, said the campaign would continue until the next referendum, and potentially beyond.
“If the ‘no’ wins again in two years, we will meet, talk and find something.
In a televised speech, Macron said: “A third referendum is possible… It’s up to your members of Congress to decide. The State, true to its word, is ready to organize it if it so chooses.
First colonized by France in 1853, the islands of New Caledonia – just 1,500 km off the Australian coast – remain a French colonial dependency.
Sunday’s poll was the second of three potentially agreed national referendums under the 1998 Noumea Accord, a carefully negotiated decolonization plan to end a deadly conflict between the mostly pro-independence Kanak people and descendants of European settlers, known as Caldoches, in the 1980s.
This violence culminated in a bloody and prolonged hostage crisis in 1988 that saw 19 separatists killed on one side and six police and special forces soldiers on the other.
While the yes / no divide is regularly presented as a contest between separatist Kanaks and loyalist Europeans, New Caledonia’s electoral list of 180,000 people also includes descendants of Indochinese contract workers, as well as more recent migrants. from France, Wallis and Futuna, Vanuatu and others. French outbuildings.
A third referendum can be organized within two years if a third of the local assembly votes in favor.
New Caledonia has largely avoided the coronavirus pandemic: only 27 cases and zero deaths have been recorded since the start of the pandemic. In the absence of community transmission of the virus, 294 polling stations were able to open for regular voting across the country at 8 a.m. on Sunday.
The turnout was significantly higher than in the previous referendum in 2018, with long queues reported in most districts. New voters came to the polls for the yes and the no: yes voters who were urged to boycott the last time by some left-wing parties and unions, and no voters convinced of an easy victory in 2018.
In the early afternoon, independence supporters happily danced through the streets of Noumea, blasting car horns and waving hundreds of Kanaky independence flags, almost as if to celebrate a victory.
“I’m sure we’ll get there; we have suffered enough over the past 30 years, ”said Germain Tokotoko.
“I am from Ouvea, the island where the assault on the cave took place [when 12 independence supporters were killed by the French army in May 1988]. This is why I am for the return of custom, the freedom of my country and the independence of my government.
Loyalists say they fear for the character of the country, as well as its economic future.
At more than 16,000 km, the French government subsidizes the territory with approximately €1.5 billion (£ 1.3 billion) per year, or the equivalent of over 15% of New Caledonia’s GDP.
“I am French and I want to stay French in the future,” said 19-year-old voter Kevin, a resident of the rural commune of La Foa, but registered to vote in the capital. “If the ‘yes’ passes, today or in two years, I don’t know what will become of us.
At the end of the polls, the President of the Caledonian Union, Daniel Goa, welcomed the strong turnout and said that he “urges every citizen not to be overwhelmed by emotions and to welcome the result in a calm atmosphere ”.