The coronavirus takes a back seat before the second referendum on the independence of New Caledonia


As coronavirus cases worsen in France, in the tiny French territory of New Caledonia, the pandemic has taken a back seat to concerns surrounding its upcoming independence referendum.

This Sunday, more than 180,000 voters will vote on whether New Caledonia will stay with France or become its own independent state.

They will be asked to vote yes or no to the question: “Do you want New Caledonia to achieve full sovereignty and become independent?” “

This is the second time in two years that New Caledonia has held an independence referendum – in 2018, the territory narrowly decided to stay with France.

Pro-independence campaign material urges New Caledonians to vote “Yes. For a multicultural nation ”.(ABC News: Patrick Nicar)

But an aggressive 2020 campaign led by both pro-independence and pro-French blocs has left some fearful of further disagreement, regardless of which team wins this weekend.

‘A question of dignity’

Many indigenous Kanak voters in New Caledonia view Sunday’s vote as a referendum on their right to rule their lands.

“It’s really a question of dignity,” said Patricia Goa, activist for independence and politician at the New Caledonian Congress.

Patricia Goa, a New Caledonian woman in a floral dress with a flower in her hair.
Patricia Goa says independence from France is a matter of dignity.(Provided)

Thirty years ago, after a bloody civil conflict called “the events”, the French state, independentist Kanak leaders and French loyalists signed a peace accord to end the violence.

This eventually led to the Noumea Accord of 1998 which mapped out a transfer of some governance powers from France to New Caledonia.

According to this agreement, New Caledonia can organize at most three referendums on its independence from France.

As the sun sets, you gaze down onto the gentle hills between turquoise waters with the Noumea skyline in the distance.
The capital of New Caledonia, Noumea, is a loyalist stronghold.(Flickr: Sharon et Peter Komidar)

But the results of the first vote in 2018 revealed that rigid ethnic and geographic divisions colored the vote.

Many New Caledonians of European descent preferred to stay in Paris, while Kanak voters were more likely to vote for independence.

This suggests to New Caledonian political researcher Pierre-Christophe Pantz that many voters will not change their minds in Sunday’s second referendum.

“We have had these social, ethnic and geographic divisions in the distribution of votes for 30 years, and I really cannot imagine a drastic change between the second and the first referendum,” said Dr Pantz.

Wider geopolitical concerns cloud Sunday’s vote

French President Emmanuel Macron poses for a selfie with a woman in New Caledonia.
Mr Macron, pictured during a visit in 2018, expressed concern about China’s influence in the Pacific.04.30 AP: Théo Rouby

French President Emanuel Macron has shown his willingness to counter China’s rise to power in the Indo-Pacific region, through new alliances with Australia and Japan.

Anti-independence politician Phillipe Gomes, who represents New Caledonia in the French National Assembly, said that if New Caledonia becomes independent it could open the door to greater Chinese influence.

“An independent New Caledonia is a defenseless New Caledonia, in the hands of China,” he declared.

On a sunny day, you see a woman carrying a box uphill in front of a yellow building from the French colonial era.
Loyalists say they will seek new constitutional protections for French relations after a negative vote.(ABC News: Patrick Nicar)

Not everyone agrees, however – public law professor Mathias Chauchat has said pro-independence leaders are keen to forge closer ties with Australia and New Zealand, if the Yes vote succeeds .

“No one will accept China as a political partner,” he said.

« [The pro-independence group] The FLNKS wishes a partnership with France as a first option. The second is to invite Australia and New Zealand to come and help the country. ”

Fears of growing hostility between blocs

Although Dr Pantz expects little to change on Sunday, he said preparations for the referendum have been fiercer than ever this year.

He points to two incidents which reveal for him a growing tension around this question of New Caledonian independence.


“A banner in the French colors, blue, white and red, was set on fire – it was a symbol of France on fire,” said Dr Pantz.

“And then the large traditional hut of the Customary Senate was also set on fire… investigations revealed that these were isolated events, not linked to independence or loyalist movements.

Voters also felt this year’s referendum promises to be more combative.

“It’s really very unpleasant,” said Delphine, a voter from Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia.

“I saw that people take much more radical positions than in 2018”.

In a dimly lit reception area, you see a lot of French flags with a large sign that reads 'mon non est'.
Demographically, New Caledonian loyalists constitute the majority of the territory’s population.(ABC News: Patrick Nicar)

Although she voted Yes to independence in the first referendum, Delphine, who declined to give her last name for fear of a backlash on her past vote, said she was not sure of his decision at the polls on Sunday.

She said the referendum forced people like her to choose their loyalty to France or New Caledonia, but her identity was much more complex than that.

“I find the question we are asking here, yes or no, is not really satisfactory. “

A vote free from coronavirus concerns

New Caledonia is considered “without COVID” by the authorities, without an active case of the virus and without a report of community transmission.

To date, only 27 cases have been recorded in the territory, all linked to travelers.

You are viewing a map of the South Pacific, with New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, and French Polynesia highlighted.
France has three overseas territories in the Pacific.(ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser)

But the pandemic has featured in the yes and no campaigns.

“The independence bloc and the anti-independence bloc have both tried to profit from the pandemic,” said Dr Pantz.

Political researcher Pierre-Christophe Pantz wearing a suit and a yellow tie.
Political researcher Pierre-Christophe Pantz said both sides have tried to profit from the handling of COVID-19.(Provided)

“We see separatist groups asking for the return of French officials to France because of their handling of the crisis, and non-separatist groups saying that the reason we were able to manage the crisis was because of France’s support. “

In May, independence leader Daniel Goa accused France of interfering in New Caledonia’s affairs in its handling of the pandemic and said authorities had put the lives of Kanaks at risk by allowing French officials to enter the country.

Under the light of a yellow lamp, you visualize a table filled with the same newsletters that have “Kanaky's voice” as the title.
Independence supporters will only have one more chance to launch a third independence referendum if 2020 fails.(ABC News: Patrick Nicar)

The French High Commission responded by saying that France had taken “the necessary measures” to protect “all Caledonians without any distinction between them”.

But today, anti-independence politician Phillip Gomes said the pandemic was not a major concern for voters during the referendum.

“New Caledonia is in a bubble, and we have no restrictions, no social distancing. We are living as before, nothing has changed, ”he said.

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Some 180,000 people are eligible to vote in this weekend’s referendum.


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