Jan 25, 2021 Last Updated 3:51 PM, Jan 25, 2021

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?

  • Jan 26, 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.

“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.”

There was no social distancing evident as tens of thousands of Vanuatu citizens marched through the capital to celebrate the nation’s 40th Independence Anniversary at the end of last month. Vanuatu is one of just eleven countries (at the time of writing) to record no coronavirus cases, so joyful celebrations were unfettered by crowd limits or stringent sanitation protocols.

Vanuatu gained its independence from Britain and France on July 30, 1980. Reflecting on that time, independence figure Pastor Sethy Regenvanu said 40 years ago there were many factors that separated them,  but that the people of Vanuatu had always been independent as “before white people came to Vanuatu” we were…relying on our subsidence agriculture and our way of life, culture and customs.”

The 40th birthday celebrations began with the solemn handing of the Vanuatu flag from the family of first Prime Minister, Father Walter Lini, to successive Prime Ministers or their families, in chronological order, ending with the recently-elected PM Bob Loughman.

Loughman received the baton as the country meets the twin challenges of COVID-19 and Cyclone Harold-induced economic trouble.

Vanuatu is due to ‘graduate’ from Least Developed Country (LDC) status at the end of this year. Loughman is determined to pursue the process (which has been delayed three times already) despite the stresses of COVID and cyclones. LDC status is designed to support countries facing deep obstacles to economic advancement. Graduation means that while they may still receive aid, they should no longer need maximum concessionary treatment from development partners.

An ESCAP paper last year suggested Vanuatu’s successful graduation is a significant achievement which would require a well-informed transition strategy, and “marks the start of what will be a potentially more challenging phase of the nation’s development journey.” The paper says attaining funding assistance will be based on maximising impact and leveraging private sector investment.

Pre-COVID and cyclone, Vanuatu’s economy  was projected to grow by 3.4% but the forecast now is a contraction to 0.6%. In an update just released, the Ministry of Finance says growth is expected to remain positive because of Government’s TC Harold recovery efforts, the Economic Stimulus Package and donor support, plus implementation of  infrastructure projects and the 11th European Development Fund. Medium term projections are also robust, driven by agriculture and industry.

Vanuatu’s strong fiscal position and successive years of budget surpluses means it should be able to fund its US$37 million stimulus measures from its own reserves. While tax revenue for the first half of the year is down 1.8% on the same period in 2019, revenue from the honorary citizenship program was up 32.3% over the first six months of last year, netting Vt 7,094.2 million (US$62,000). This means the 2020 target has already been exceeded.

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