“I am hopeful that we will increase our score”: New Caledonia’s referendum

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.”