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.
- New Caledonia can organize a maximum of three referendums on its independence from France
- Sunday’s vote will be the second vote in as many years on sovereignty
- Voters say climate has become toxic and geopolitical concerns play a role
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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”.
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.
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.
“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.
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.