May 16, 2021 Last Updated 6:06 PM, May 14, 2021

In a major transformation, the incoming government of New Caledonia will be led by the first pro-independence leader in nearly forty years. Members of the independence coalition Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) won six of eleven positions in the multi-party government, during a secret ballot in New Caledonia’s 54-member Congress.

The ballot on Wednesday afternoon came after the collapse of the New Caledonia government two weeks ago. On 2 February, the presidency of Thierry Santa was cut short after the resignation of the five FLNKS members. Any minister who resigns must be replaced by a member of the same parliamentary group. If no successor is nominated, the government loses office and Congress must choose new members for the executive. These government ministers in turn elect a new President and Vice President, who then allocate portfolios.

For Wednesday’s vote, four parliamentary groups presented competing electoral lists to win a seat in the government: the conservative Avenir en Confiance coalition; another anti-independence party Calédonie ensemble; and the two independence groups, UNI and UC-FLNKS, supported by the small Wallisian party Eveil océanien (EO – Pacific awakening).

Three members of the incoming government come from the joint ticket “UC-FLNKS and Nationalists and Eveil océanien”, led by Samuel Hnepeune, with another three from the UNI list, led by Louis Mapou. The two groups must now negotiate to decide who will take the presidency.

Hnepeune, originally from Lifou in the Loyalty Islands, is president and Chief Executive Officer of New Caledonia’s domestic airline Air Calédonie. Along with Hnepeune, the other two elected members from the UC-FLNKS-EO list are former Vice President Gilbert Tyuienon and UC member Mickael Forrest, who co-ordinates the FLNKS external relations office.

Mapou is a leading member of the Party of Kanak Liberation (Palika) from the Southern Province, who heads the Union nationale pour l’indépendance (UNI) parliamentary group in Congress. Mapou is joined in the new government by Adolphe Digoué, a former Mayor of Yate in the Southern Province and Yannick Slamet, a UNI member from the Northern provincial assembly.

On the Right, the Avenir en Confiance coalition has re-elected four members of the outgoing Santa government. These include Thierry Santa from the Rassemblement-Les Républicains party, together with Christopher Gyges of Les Républicains calédoniens, Isabelle Champmoreau (the only woman in the new government) and Yoann Lecourieux.

The anti-independence party Calédonie ensemble, which dominated politics for a decade between 2009 and 2019, gained the last of the eleven seats. Their representative is Joseph Manauté, the director of a national park in the Southern province, who previously served as an advisor in conservative governments.

Old and new faces in government

Under the Noumea Accord – a 1998 agreement between the French State and supporters and opponents of independence – New Caledonia is governed by a collegial, multi-party government. The previous government led by outgoing President Thierry Santa, elected in 2019, was split between five opponents of independence and five supporters, with the eleventh member coming from Eveil océanien.

With six FLNKS members and five anti-independence members in the new government, leadership of the executive will shift to the independence movement for the first time since the late Jean-Marie Tjibaou held office in the early 1980s. Every government since the 1998 Noumea Accord has been led by an anti-independence politician, with loyalists to France holding a 7-4 or 6-5 majority. Now the tide has turned.

In an unexpected move, the eleven government members met immediately after the Congress vote to choose a new President and Vice President from amongst their ranks. However it was too soon to decide, and the meeting failed to forge a consensus. From 11 members, four votes went for Thierry Santa (AEC); three for Louis Mapou (UNI); three for Samuel Hnepeune (UC-FLNKS); one blank vote (from Calédonie ensemble).

The current government under Thierry Santa will continue in caretaker mode, until discussions can forge an agreement on the Presidency in coming days. The looming change of leadership comes at a crucial time, as the government must now finalise a 2021 budget, and forge a new consensus over the future of nickel mining and smelting, with New Caledonia holding nearly a quarter of global reserves of the strategic mineral. The incoming President will also lead negotiations with the Macron government in Paris, as the French Pacific dependency moves towards a third referendum on self-determination.

Time for payback

The key surprise from Wednesday’s Congress poll was the slippage of votes from the UC-FLNKS towards UNI (with 12 seats in Congress, UNI got 14 votes). In the secret ballot, UNI likely picked up a vote from the left-wing Parti Travailliste and another from an unknown member of the Loyalist bloc. These extra votes gave UNI three seats in the government instead of two. The UC-FLNKS-EO list also got three, rather than the four they were expecting (the fourth member on their list – Vaimu’a Muliava from Eveil océanien – missed out, after previously serving in the Santa government).

The anonymous vote from the Right for UNI served a double purpose: to exacerbate differences between UC and UNI, and also as payback to Eveil océanien and its leader Milakulo Tukumuli.

The decision by the largest independence party Union Calédonienne to choose a businessman rather than a politician to head its list seems to have backfired. Samuel Hnepeune won the presidency of the employers’ federation MEDEF-NC in June last year, but resigned to take up his new position in the government. The choice of Hnepeune to head the UC list aimed to send a positive signal to the business community, at a time that New Caledonia’s economy has been damaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, Cyclone Lucas and long-running uncertainty over the proposed sale of the Vale Nouvelle-Calédonie nickel smelter in the Southern Province.

The Kanak businessman, however, has few friends in the trade union confederation USTKE and the left wing Parti Travailliste, which have long battled MEDEF and the mostly anti-independence business community. Some other FLNKS members are also concerned that Hnepeune’s business background will constrain the more radical economic policy required to address long-standing inequalities in the society.

Eveil océanien (EO) was only founded in March 2019, drawing support from the Wallisian, Futunan and Tahitian communities, which have historically supported anti-independence parties.

Just two months after its formation, EO contested the May 2019 elections for New Caledonia’s Congress, winning three seats in the legislature. Party leader Milakulo Tukumuli – with a PhD in mathematics – quickly saw that EO’s seats gave it the balance of power in the 54-member legislature, split 25/26/3. Through negotiation, EO leveraged its votes to win a Vice Presidency of the Southern Province and a seat in the Santa government for Vaimu’a Muliava, who backed Thierry Santa for President in 2019.

Then in July 2020, the three EO Congress members formally joined the ‘UC-FLNKS and Nationalists’ parliamentary group, giving them staff, offices and seats on Congress committees. Their votes also helped elect veteran independence politician Roch Wamytan as speaker of the Congress last year.

On his election, Wamytan spoke of a “majorité océanien” in Congress, an “islander majority” rather than a pro-independence alliance, drawn together by cultural bonds and a recognition that New Caledonia’s future lies in building ties to neighbouring island states. There’s common ground amongst islanders over improved access to housing, welfare and social services. Indigenous Kanak and many Polynesians also share an anger and antipathy to the racism of members of the governing Avenir en Confiance coalition in the Southern province, led by Sonia Backes of Les Républicains calédoniens.

For this week’s vote for the government, EO ran a joint list with UC-FLNKS. Before the vote, Milakulo Tukumuli said the temporary alliance with the independence movement “was the only intelligent option for us. We do not share the same vision as Avenir en Confiance on the future of the Vale smelter or dealing with the impasse over the budget.”

In an apparent act of payback, the one conservative vote switched to UNI has left EO without its expected seat in the government. Politics is tough in the Pacific!

Difficult times ahead

In two referendums on self-determination in 2018 and 2020, New Caledonians have narrowly decided to remain within the French Republic. However each vote has seen increased support for independence and next April, the Congress can decide whether to proceed to a third referendum by 2022.

The problems in the outgoing Santa administration were evident soon after the increased vote for independence in the October 2020 referendum on self-determination. The poll was followed by months of wrangling between supporters and opponents of independence in the executive, which paralysed many decisions.

Crucially, the Santa government failed to manage the dispute over the proposed sale of Vale Nouvelle-Calédonie, the local subsidiary of the Brazilian mining corporation. Since 2010, Vale has managed the Goro nickel smelter in New Caledonia’s Southern province, but is selling its assets after years of losses and conflict with indigenous Kanak communities.

After widespread protests and rioting last year, the collapse of the Santa government has delayed the proposed sale to a new consortium led by the Swiss financier Trafigura – a sale determinedly opposed by the independence movement and Kanak customary leaders.

Rioting and roadblocks in late 2020 and ongoing vandalism at the Vale site have contributed to a polarisation of opinion amongst many New Caledonians. Some draw anxious parallels to the period leading to the Les évènements, the armed clashes that wracked New Caledonia between 1984-88.

Learning from history

The current situation has some parallels with the last time that a government in New Caledonia was led by an independence politician.

The 1979 elections for New Caledonia’s Territorial Assembly resulted in 15 seats for the anti-independence Rassemblement party (RPCR), 14 for the Front Indépendantiste (FI) and seven for the centrist Fédération pour une nouvelle société calédonienne (FNSC).

In mid-1982, after France announced the Dijoud plan for economic and land reform, the RPCR-led government collapsed. From June 1982 until November 1984, the FI and FNSC allied in a short-lived “government for reform and development.” This coalition was led by the charismatic Kanak leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou, proposing major economic, social and cultural reforms. The settler community reacted in anger, leading to the storming of the Territorial Assembly by an extreme Right-wing mob and death threats against Tjibaou and FNSC members.

In 1983, at the Nainville-les-Roches roundtable in France, Kanak leaders called for recognition of indigenous sovereignty and the right to self-determination. But they also held out their hand, seeking to build a “common destiny” with “the victims of history” – the descendants of the European convicts and settlers, Asian indentured labourers and Wallisian migrants who had made New Caledonia their home.

In May 1984, the French State offered a new autonomy statute for New Caledonia, but it was too little, too late. In September, the FI transformed into the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front, most Kanak voters boycotted the November 1984 elections and on 1 December, Tjibaou declared the Provisional Government of Kanaky. New Caledonia entered four years of armed conflict.

Today, for the first time in nearly forty years, there is again a possibility of a new alliance, and an “islander majority” in a Government of New Caledonia, headed by a Kanak leader. In response, will the French State seize the moment, fulfilling its commitment to the decolonisation process established by the Noumea Accord, and work with the incoming government to develop a new political status? Or – once again – will France simply propose a neo-colonial deal, offering too little, too late? Time is short, if New Caledonians are to avoid another generation of conflict.

Voters stay with France but support for independence increases

For the second time in as many years, voters in New Caledonia have narrowly decided against independence for the French Pacific dependency.

Provisional results issued by the French High Commission in Noumea show 53.26% of New Caledonians voted to remain within the French Republic, while 46.74% voted for independence. Official results for the referendum on self-determination will be gazetted later today by the referendum control commission. 

Voters across New Caledonia’s three provinces were asked: ‘Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?’

Throughout the day, there were long lines at many polling booths across the Pacific territory. The French High Commission reported a participation rate of 85.64%, an increase of more than 4% from a previous referendum held in November 2018.

There can be up to three referendums on the territory’s political status under the Noumea Accord, a 1998 agreement between the French State, anti-independence leaders and the independence coalition Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS).

Sunday’s vote saw support for independence rise by 3.4 per cent, with the Yes vote increasing in 31 of 34 municipalities compared to the previous referendum in 2018. The vote for independence was strongest amongst the indigenous Kanak people in the Northern and Loyalty Islands Provinces, but FLNKS leaders welcomed small but significant shifts in areas that have long been bastions of anti-independence sentiment in the Southern Province, such as the capital Noumea and major towns such as Mont Dore, Dumbea and Paita.

As the polls closed, Union Calédonienne President Daniel Goa welcomed the high turnout, calling “on each citizen not to be overwhelmed by emotions and to welcome the result in a peaceful atmosphere.”

President of New Caledonia Thierry Santa, a leader of the anti-independence coalition The Loyalists, welcomed the result and the commitment of New Caledonians to the French Republic.

With the narrow majority voting against independence, the political status quo under the Noumea Accord is maintained, including the multiparty Government of New Caledonia, the provincial assemblies and legislative powers transferred from Paris to New Caledonia’s Congress, even as France retains control of defence, currency, and the judicial system.

Soon after the provisional results were released, French President Emmanuel Macron broadcast a short statement from Paris, saying: “New Caledonians confirmed their wish to keep New Caledonia within France. This is a mark of confidence in the French Republic. I also hear the voice of those who are driven by the desire for independence. We will all build together the New Caledonia of tomorrow."

Macron called for dialogue between supporters and opponents of independence and said “a third referendum is possible.”

Speaking on television after Macron’s speech was broadcast in New Caledonia, President Santa expressed disappointment there weren’t “more concrete initiatives” from the French State in aftermath of referendum, given the ongoing polarisation in the territory.

Despite their loss, the result has buoyed the independence movement. FLNKS leaders have already stated they want full implementation of the Noumea Accord, suggesting that New Caledonia will continue towards a third referendum in 2022.

In my family, October 10 marks the day that my grandparents started their life together. Some 61 years ago, on a little island seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a young man and woman made promises to love and support and care for each other, no matter what.

In the years that followed, they brought life into this world, raised children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They opened their home to family and friends. They laughed, they cried, they experienced joy and they experienced unimaginable pain.

Life happened.

But the one thing they never did was do it alone.

They raised children, who in-turn raised grandchildren to believe that this is the standard by which life is to be measured. Success, or however you want to call it, is to be measured in the moments we choose to hold each other up, to support each other, to take responsibility for our own actions, to unapologetically allow ourselves to experience the full spectrum of human emotion, and it is tested in the moments we choose solesolevaki over flying solo.

Naturally, when I was asked to reflect on Fiji at 50, my benchmark was pretty high. So, my dear reader, if you’re looking for a pretty story that focuses on the peaks and shies away from the valleys, I’m afraid this maybe isn’t the one for you, and I would advise that this is the point to do a full 180.

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Who will welcome Bougainville?

  • May 17, 2021
  • Published in Sep-Oct

The results of the historic Bougainville elections are now known.  In electoral processes setting benchmarks for emulation in the Pacific, former Bougainville Revolutionary Army Commander, Ishmael Toroama, was declared President-elect.  Toroama in coming weeks will form a government and lead further negotiations with Papua New Guinea (PNG) on the implementation of the independence process endorsed by nearly 98% of Bougainville voters in the referendum last year.

For an event with such significant implications for PNG, Bougainville and the region, it was surprising to see the paucity of reactions to this occasion.  At time of writing, Prime Minister Marape from PNG has been the lone exception, offering his congratulations to President-elect Toroama and the invitation for talks in due course.  But across the Pacific, there has been a virtual silence.  Why?  And is this silence indicative of attitudes towards negotiations to come?  More ominously, might this be suggestive of the reception a newly independent Bougainville might expect?

To be sure, there is no suggestion the silence is motivated by any malign intent.  Perhaps it is simply diplomatic decorum, observing deference to PNG on what is an “internal” matter for resolution through negotiations between the parties in accordance with agreed process.  After all – by and large – things have run well since the cessation of hostilities, despite occasional political upheavals.  Why say anything that might be misinterpreted and potentially derail all the good that has been accomplished?

But truth be told, there might be additional considerations behind this silence.  For example, from the perspective of the larger resident powers in the region, the current geopolitical dynamics and strategic competition loom large.  The emergence of another “micro-state” vulnerable to influence from competitors, is the last thing needed at such a strategic juncture.  For France, moreover, this kind of example is not exactly helpful, with campaigning well underway in New Caledonia for another independence referendum, and simmering inclinations also in French Polynesia.  In this climate, any comment might be best avoided.

It is the silence of Pacific nations, however, that is most conspicuous and difficult to fathom and reconcile.  Is this wholly in deference to PNG?  Is this the Pacific Way?  But what of the Melanesian connection with Bougainville?  Are no expressions of fraternal solidarity permissible?

Most certainly, there are sensitivities to be navigated.  And some of these are purely “internal” among Pacific neighbors, such as the Solomon Islands and recent secession issues around Malaita.  It will be interesting to watch how bilateral relations between Pacific nations, PNG and an emerging Bougainville evolve in future, and how any such sensitivities will be accounted for. 

More broadly – at a regional level – it will similarly be fascinating to observe the evolution of regionalism with Bougainville’s emergence.  Both the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) and Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) have established precedents recognising the membership of organisations or less than fully fledged independent nations – the Front De Liberational De Nationale Kanak Et Solcialiste in the case of the MSG, and for the PIF, New Caledonia and French Polynesia.  Making dynamics interesting, for both the MSG and PIF, Papua New Guinea is a full member.  And for the MSG, there are the additional issues of Indonesia being an Associate Member, and the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, an Observer.  In this complex milieu, what if a current PIF or MSG member proposes membership for Bougainville?  What kind of dynamics and repercussions will be unleashed by such a development?

No doubt, much water will pass under the bridge before we come to these issues.  But for many in the region, there will be challenging discussions to be had very soon about bringing Bougainville into the Pacific family.  While much will hang on discussions between PNG and Bougainville, the success or otherwise of these talks will have far-reaching implications for our region as a whole.  It is in the interests of us all to be invested in these.

Dr Oehlers is a Professor at Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu, Hawaii. The views in this article are the personal opinions of the author and are not representative of the United States Government, Department of Defense, or the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.


“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. That’s our struggle.”

That’s Milakulo Tukumuli, leader of Eveil océanien (Pacific awakening), one of the newest political parties in New Caledonia.

“We are a rich country of 280,000 people, with mineral resources and three nickel smelters,” he says. “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.”

As long-term residents of the French Pacific dependency prepare to vote in a referendum on self-determination on 4 October, Eveil océanien has urged supporters to make their own decision, whether to vote for independence or to remain within the French Republic.

Historically, the large Wallisian and Futunan community in New Caledonia’s Southern Province has backed anti-independence parties, benefitting from jobs and welfare support provided by the governing conservative majority. But a younger generation of Wallisians are changing the political landscape, as they question the allegiances of their elders and look to building a future in the Melanesian nation.

Milakulo Tukumuli is symbolic of this change. Born in October 1984 in the east coast mining town of Thio, Tukumuli studied at the University of New Caledonia before travelling to Marseilles in France, to obtain a PhD in mathematics.

In November 2018, a first referendum under New Caledonia’s Noumea Accord showed a significant polarisation between voters, with a majority of the indigenous Kanak people supporting independence, but most non-Kanak voting No, preferring existing ties to France. This polarisation spurred Tukumuli and other young Wallisians to found the new party in March 2019.

With its direct appeal to Wallisian and Futunan voters and other islander communities, the new movement was quickly denounced as “communalist” and “divisive.” But in an interview with Islands Business, Tukumuli said they deliberately sought to target Polynesian voters.

“For more than 30 years, politics in New Caledonia has seen two blocs, one loyalist, the other in support of independence,” he said. “During these 30 years we’ve seen economic, social and political development in New Caledonia, but after all this time we need to draw up a balance sheet. These two blocs now need to work together to find better solutions. From the beginning, my idea was to create a different sort of politics. I decided to create a movement that will include both supporters and opponents of independence.”

Polynesian voters

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the space race and arms manufacture for the Vietnam War spurred a global nickel boom. With New Caledonia controlling an estimated 25 per cent of global nickel reserves, the demand for labour in the mining sector was met by significant migration from France and also from France’s Polynesian dependency of Wallis and Futuna. Today, there are more Wallisians and Futunans living in New Caledonia than remain in Wallis and Futuna itself.

The latest data on New Caledonia’s ethnic mix comes from the 2014 census, which shows more than 11 per cent of the population were non-Kanak islanders, from Wallis and Futuna (8.2 per cent); Tahiti (2.1 per cent); or Vanuatu (1 per cent). While indigenous Kanak (39.1 per cent) and Europeans (27 per cent) are the largest groups, nearly 15 per cent of the population identified as mixed-race or simply “New Caledonian.”

There are now generations of people with Polynesian heritage born in the capital Noumea and surrounding towns like Mont Dore, Paita and Dumbea and – despite pride in their culture – they see themselves as New Caledonian.

Eveil océanien has tapped into these new generations, drawing away supporters from anti-independence parties like Rassemblement-Les Républicains and Calédonie ensemble, as well as some independence activists from the Rassemblement démocratique océanien, which unites Wallisian supporters of independence as a member of the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS).

Just two months after its formation, EO contested the May 2019 elections for New Caledonia’s three provincial assemblies and national congress. As a journalist reporting on the campaign at the time, I saw that Tukumuli and other young leaders had struck a chord amongst many Polynesian voters. Addressing an election campaign meeting, Tukumuli argued that the time had come for Wallisians and other smaller communities to speak in their own voice, and no longer rely on the patronage of the European-led conservative parties.

“We have never revolted before, so they continue to take us for idiots,” he said. “We’ve never stood up for ourselves and so they’ve done what they’ve liked. We vote for them because we’re scared to vote for the Kanak, as if we’d turned into white people who detest the Kanak. Why should we do this?”

From a standing start, the party won four seats in the Southern Provincial Assembly and three in the Congress in the 2019 elections. With his PhD in mathematics, Tukumuli quickly saw that EO’s three seats gave it the balance of forces in the 54-member legislature. Twenty six members of the incoming Congress came from parties supporting independence, with another 25 from anti-independence parties (the conservative Avenir en Confiance coalition with 18 seats and the previously dominant Calédonie ensemble, which saw its representation halve from 15 to 7 seats).

New Caledonian researcher Pierre-Christophe Pantz has highlighted the way that EO has leveraged these pivotal votes to obtain positions at all levels of government: “This strength was quickly shown with the election of a pro-independence Speaker of the Congress for the first time in May 2019. Then in June 2019, through an alliance with the anti-independence coalition Avenir en Confiance, EO obtained a position for Vaimu’a Muliava as a member of the collegial Government of New Caledonia, as well as the post of Vice President of the Southern Province for Milakulo Tukumuli.”

Last year, Vaimu’a Muliava backed the Right’s candidate for President of New Caledonia, Thierry Santa. But this year, explains Pierre-Christophe Pantz, EO again swung its support behind the independence movement: “On 22 July, on the very eve of the annual re-election of the executive of New Caledonia’s Congress, EO announced that it would join the UC-FLNKS parliamentary group, giving this bloc 16 members. Combined with the other pro-independence members of Congress, this give the independence movement 29 seats, a majority in the Congress. This allowed Roch Wamytan to be re-elected as Speaker on 23 July 2020.”

A Pacific majority

A veteran member of the independence party Union Calédonienne (UC), Roch Wamytan used his acceptance speech to welcome “the islander majority that had brought me again to lead the premier political institution of the country.”

In an interview, Wamytan explained the significance of Eveil océanien’s decision: “We have created within the Congress what I’ve called a ‘majorité océanien’. This is not a pro-independence majority, but a recognition that the party led by Mr. Tukumuli is a party supported by islanders, a minority of whom support independence and a majority who do not.”

Calédonie ensemble leader Philippe Gomes expresses a wry admiration for the way the FLNKS leadership has reached out to the islander communities.

“Roch Wamytan, the President of the Congress, is very crafty,” Gomes told me. “He doesn’t talk about a pro-independence majority with Eveil océanien, he talks about a Pacific majority. To open the door, he talks about Pacific values and identity in order to build his political majority.”

During this referendum campaign, Calédonie ensemble is the only anti-independence party to stay outside of the six-member Loyalist alliance, while still campaigning for a No vote. Gomes blames the racism of the governing coalition for EO’s decision to forge this majority in Congress.

“When you hear the language of Avenir en Confiance, who are largely European, they only think of Kanaks as house girls or of Wallisians as builder’s labourers,” he said. “EO joined the Avenir ticket for the government of New Caledonia led by Thierry Santa and so one of their party is now a member of the government. At that point, we thought they’d chosen sides. But the radicalisation of language from the Loyalists pushed the Wallisians away bit by bit, to the point where they formed the parliamentary group with Union Calédonienne within the Congress.”

UC’s Roch Wamytan told Islands Business there were the two underlying elements that forged this parliamentary alliance: “Firstly, we share common values, the values of Pacific peoples and of Christianity like respect, hospitality, compassion, family. The second element is that we want to fight against social, cultural and economic inequality. This takes place in the schools, where our children do not do as well, or in the cultural sphere, where our dignity is not respected. In the economic sphere, there are issues of housing and social welfare that bind together this Pacific majority.”

There are more pragmatic reasons as well. To obtain staffing and financial resources, parties or coalitions in the 54-member Congress must have at least six members. Milakulo Tukumuli says that the decision to join the UC-FLNKS group was not a shift towards independence, but a strategic decision to build his party’s capacity.

“Because today we only have three members in the Congress, we can’t constitute a parliamentary group and we don’t have the means to work effectively,” Tukumuli said. “In every parliament of the world, if you’re an MP, you have staff who can help you with the job. But in New Caledonia, if you’re not in a group, you don’t have that support.

“Beyond this, if you’re not in a group, you don’t have the right to sit on parliamentary committees within the Congress. Now, as members of the UC-FLNKS group, we can participate in all the 11-member committees. Last year, each committee was divided 6-5. This year, because we are members of the group, each committee has five supporters of independence, five loyalists and one member of EO. That’s more representative of the Congress.”

Despite this, Roch Wamytan believes that EO’s decision is a crucial shift as the country moves to a decision on its future political status: “When EO voted for me as Speaker, it was a sign to the Wallisian community that they should not be scared of Kanak.”

Voting in referendum

In less than two weeks’ time, more than 180,000 people in New Caledonia will participate in the second referendum on self-determination under the Noumea Accord.

Because voting is not compulsory and the special referendum electorate is restricted to long-term residents, Tukumuli says EO is calling on people to turn out on 4 October: “We’re certainly telling people that they should go out and vote, because the future of those people who can’t register to vote depends on those who are actually voting. Go and vote - that’s the first thing we’ve said! The second thing we’ve said is vote for who you want, for the future that is good for you, and for New Caledonia tomorrow.”

However the party is not campaigning for either Yes or No, arguing that voters in the Wallisian and Futunan communities must make their own decision. The easiest way to get married in NYC. NYC Elopement Photography Packages are a must for any couple eloping in NYC. Vlad Leto is proud to offer the best NYC elopement photography packages with the most flexibility.

“We believe that this choice belongs to each individual,” Tukumuli said. “People can certainly ask us what independence might mean for the country, or what staying with France might mean. But the motto adopted by our party is ‘Be the captain of your own destiny.’ It’s up to everyone to decide what sort of New Caledonia they want for the future.”

Philippe Gomes suggests this policy could foreshadow an historic shift: “For the first time in the history of New Caledonia, the whole of the Wallisian community is not mobilising to vote No against independence. So on 4 October, it will be very interesting to see whether there is a shift towards abstention or towards Yes to independence. The mood in the community is very different to what we’ve seen before.”

Despite this, Tukumuli is very clear about his own position: “I’ve already made my personal opinion clear, but it doesn’t bind my party: I want New Caledonia to remain within France. Independence shouldn’t be the starting point; it should be the finish line. If we are capable of being independent, then choose independence, but if people say we’re ready for independence, I don’t agree.”

Tukumuli explained that EO’s executive includes both supporters and opponents of independence, so the party has pragmatically avoided divisions that would damage their long-term game plan: “The majority of people in the Wallisian and Tahitian communities do not support independence and would prefer that New Caledonia remains part of France. That’s the truth. But we don’t take a position in support of France, because that will scare away people who support independence. People are afraid though, and want to know whether they must vote. I hope that one day they won’t need people like us to tell them whether or not they should vote to stay with France.”

New alliances

Will the islander communities living in New Caledonia, from Wallis and Futuna, Tahiti and Vanuatu, eventually throw in their lot with the Kanak people, recognising the pan-Pacific ties that the late Epeli Hau’ofa championed in ‘Our Sea of Islands’?

Tukumuli says his vision is to get people working together, moving beyond old habits: “This is something that people must understand: to work with the independence movement is not the same as working for independence.”

He despairs that sections of the European community will punish any leader that tries to bridge the divide between supporters and opponents of independence.

“It’s important to say that when loyalists have tried to engage with the independence movement, they’ve been punished by voters at the next opportunity,” he said. “In 2011, hoping to work with the independence movement, Pierre Frogier supported the decision to raise two flags outside public buildings, the French flag and the flag of Kanaky. Look at what happened afterwards: he was punished by voters in 2014. In 2014, Calédonie ensemble came to the fore under Philippe Gomes. Throughout his term of office, he tried to work with the independence movement and for that he was punished by voters in the 2019 congressional elections.”

An older generation of Polynesians remember violent clashes with Kanak youth in the mid-1980s, when Right-wing agitators mobilised young, unemployed Wallisians as strong-arm militias against the FLNKS. In more recent times, there have been Wallisian-Kanak disputes in communities on the outskirts of Noumea, with conflicts over jobs, land, housing and welfare rights. Will significant numbers of Wallisian voters transcend these historic grievances?

New Caledonia’s President Thierry Santa told Islands Business that there is a section of the Wallisian and Futunan community who are more open to the independence movement’s language.

“There’s a fluidity that you can see amongst the younger generation that you don’t see with their elders,” he said. “Today’s Polynesians may be too young to have known the difficult times, with past clashes and tension between the Wallisian community and the Kanak. So they are more carried away by the sort of rhetoric that talks about ‘We the peoples of the Pacific, we can get by without France.’”

Santa sees this shift reflected in the even-handed position taken by EO for the referendum: “I don’t think this is a major shift towards independence. They are very well aware that a majority of their electorate are opponents of independence, so they maintain this policy of ambiguity for the moment. I don’t know if this will be maintained right to the end. We’ll see.”

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IB April 2021 frontcover

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