Competition on the Right over New Caledonia’s future

Just days before New Caledonians go to the polls in local elections, major political parties have rallied their supporters at large public rallies, before the official campaign closes on Friday night.

Next Sunday, 12 May, nearly 170,000 registered voters can choose representatives to New Caledonia’s three Provincial assemblies and national Congress. In New Caledonia’s Southern Province, there is a fierce competition in the capital, as well as surrounding towns like Mont Dore, Paita and Dumbea, between conservative parties seeking support from voters opposed to independence. With non-compulsory voting, getting people to turn out will be vital.

Three conservative groups held meetings in Noumea on Wednesday night, posing different visions of the future of the French Pacific dependency.

Calédonie ensemble (CE – Caledonia Together), currently the largest anti-independence party in New Caledonia’s Congress, held a rally at the Kuendu Beach resort, on the outskirts of Noumea. The same evening, the Southern Stadium at Paita was filled with supporters of the Avenir en Confiance coalition (AenC – the Future with Confidence). The stadium was filled with a large crowd waving the blue, white and red French flag.

In a meeting in the southern suburbs of Noumea – an area of luxury apartments, yacht harbours and tourist hotels – the Rassemblement national (RN) gathered a much smaller number. RN is the local affiliate of the re-branded National Front in France, and hopes to ride on the coattails of Marine Le Pen’s campaign for this month’s European elections, drawing on the racism and nationalism of the extreme-Right party. But RN will poll poorly in New Caledonia in Sunday’s vote, with its main messages already adopted by stronger Right-wing parties like Sonia Backès’ Les Républicains calédoniens (LRC).

For the past five years, CE has been the dominant force on the Right, with parliamentarians located at all levels of government. The party currently holds the presidency of the large Southern Province Assembly, the Presidency of the Government of New Caledonia, and three of four New Caledonian representatives in the French National Assembly and Senate in Paris.

This has made CE a big target, and AenC hopes to increase its numbers in the Congress after Sunday’s vote, aiming to seize control of the crucial Southern Province (the rural Northern and Loyalty Islands Provinces, with a majority Kanak population, routinely elect pro-independence administrations).

Calédonie ensemble under pressure

At Kuendu Beach on Wednesday night, the Calédonie ensemble meeting mixed slick campaign videos with music and brief speeches by its multi-ethnic list of candidates, followed by an oration by party President Philippe Gomès.

Apart from long-time politicians Gomès, Philippe Michel and Philippe Dunoyer, CE’s electoral list in the Southern Province features a number of younger women who are guaranteed election on Sunday: Kanak engineer Annie Qaeze, former French army officer turned lawyer Magalie Manuohalolo and agriculturalist Emmanuelle Khac, a young mother of Vietnamese and European heritage.

At the CE rally, speeches alternated with slickly produced videos that highlighted the financial resources available to anti-independence groups. The glossy propaganda is a sharp contrast to the independence movement Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS), which relies on face to face meetings, family and clan networks and cheaper social media memes.

CE’s electoral booklets and posters are plastered with the photo of the famous handshake in 1988 between anti-independence politician Jacques Lafleur and then FLNKS leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou. The handshake symbolised their agreement to end the armed conflict of the mid-1980s, which pitted the FLNKS against the French army, police and armed militias of the Right.

At Kuendu Beach, speaker after speaker stressed the need for peace and ongoing dialogue with the FLNKS, proposing negotiations for a “shared referendum” to resolve the long-standing debate over independence in New Caledonia.

In a change of tone, however, CE leaders also sharply attacked their main rivals in the elections – the Avenir en Confiance coalition. Drawing support from the European community and other New Caledonians anxious about their future in an independent Kanaky-New Caledonia, this coalition links three conservative, anti-independence parties: Les Républicains calédoniens (LRC), led by Sonia Backès; Rassemblement-Les Républicains (R-LR), led by Thierry Santa; and the Mouvement populaire calédonien (MPC) under Gil Brial.

Opening the CE meeting with a sharp polemic, the current President of the Southern Province Philippe Michel denounced Backès and Santa: “It is out of the question that we should deliver the future of the country into the hands of white supremacists from the southern suburbs, who talk of purging the independence movement from politics. You can’t purge those that you want to talk to.”

Michel welcomed to the stage Gael Yanno, founder of the Mouvement populaire calédonien, but who fell out with his lieutenant Gil Brial and is not contesting the current polls. In 2014, Yanno was defeated for the mayoralty of Noumea Town Council by CE’s Sonia Lagarde. Ironically, Lagarde also had a spectacular falling out with her own party, and appeared at the rival AenC meeting on Wednesday night, criticising her former boss Philippe Gomès. Musical chairs! While they are united in their commitment to the French Republic, there seems to be a flexible attitude to party loyalty amongst some of New Caledonia’s conservative political elite.

CE presents itself as a party for the whole “Caledonian people”, with support in the capital, the bush and the islands. It has tried to build a base in Kanak tribes, with support from Annie Qaeze in Lifou and Gerard Poadja in the north. However, the competing anti-independence forces could not forge a united list in either the Northern or Loyalty Islands provinces, splitting the anti-independence vote and reducing chances of seats in the Congress.

CE may also bleed votes to a number of smaller electoral lists running in the Southern Province in this week’s election, such as Martine Cornaille’s Alliance citoyenne pour la transition (ACT), or the new Eveil océanien party led by Milakulo Tukumuli, which has held large rallies with support from younger Wallisian and Tahitian voters (a significant voting bloc, with the Polynesian migrant communities making up nearly 10 per cent of New Caledonia’s population).

Remaining with France

The three parties in the Avenir en Confiance coalition are also competing for support amongst CE’s electorate in the capital. At the AenC meeting in Paita, speaker after speaker directed much of their fire at Gomès and CE, rather than the FLNKS. Conservative leaders warned that after the elections, CE may form a de facto alliance with the independence movement that could lead the country to sovereignty or some form of free association.

After the majority vote to stay with France in last November’s referendum on self-determination, LRC’s Sonia Backès said that New Caledonia should not wait until 2020 to hold a further referendum. She proposed instead a quick vote, to avoid a long drawn out process under the Noumea Accord, which allows for two further referendums in 2020 and 2022.

Backès proposed negotiations to create a new agreement with the independence movement and issued a familiar call for unity amongst those who want to remain within the French Republic (a loyalist alliance that doesn’t seem to include Philippe Gomès!).

“On Sunday, you will go to choose your negotiators to lead these discussions,” she said. “You must also choose those who can manage our provinces and the Government of New Caledonia. And I say to you: things will change!”

Backès’ policy agenda is strongly opposed by independence leaders, who will push back against proposals to open up New Caledonia’s restricted electoral roll, and remove affirmative action programs in the Northern and Loyalty Islands Provinces that have benefited poorer Kanaks. Many are wary of Backes call for a crack-down on youth delinquency, fearing police harassment of young Kanaks and islanders.

Despite a number of election pledges for expensive government subsidies to key constituencies, AenC speakers called for tighter economic management, with neo-liberal economic policies that are well supported by New Caledonia’s employers’ federation MEDEF. They gain little backing, however, from many working people concerned about the cost of living, quality of health, housing and education and the vast social inequality between indigenous Kanaks and islanders, compared to wealthy French public servants and businesspeople.  

Independence movement responds

The demands from the Right are not swaying the independence movement, buoyed by the November 2018 referendum that saw 43.3 per cent of New Caledonians – mainly Kanak – vote Yes for independence. While the result was a decision to remain within the French Republic – for now – the support for independence was much greater than predicted by opinion polling and a significant shock to supporters of French colonialism.

After the referendum, FLNKS spokesperson Daniel Goa told Islands Business: “On the numbers, we only need another 7 per cent of votes to win. In consequence, we have little need for discussion with our adversaries. Let us calmly follow the path to a second referendum, as there’s nothing to negotiate.”

The FLNKS is also fiercely opposed to AenC proposals to withdraw New Caledonia from the list of non-self-governing territories and the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation. International scrutiny of French policies has been a long-standing element of the FLNKS quest for self-determination, but is anathema to many politicians on the Right, who have argued publicly for the removal of New Caledonia from the UN list.

Just one third of members in the new 2019-24 Congress can call for another referendum on self-determination: after Sunday’s vote, the FLNKS will certainly have the numbers to proceed to a second poll. Before then, however, the incoming Congress must choose a new Speaker and also a government of between 5 and 11 members. With current President of New Caledonia Philippe Germain announcing he will take a “step back” from political life, the looming tussle over the Presidency of the country will test everyone’s commitment to dialogue and consensus.

The tensions between the two major Right-wing forces will likely continue as New Caledonia tries to forge a multi-party government after the elections, according to independence activist Louis Mapou, a leading member of the Parti de Liberation Kanak (Palika). Standing for office on the FLNKS Sud list in the Southern Province, Mapou is dismissive of their anti-independence opponents.

“Since the referendum, we’re in a new political situation,” he said. “We need two or three more seats in the South so that Avenir en Confiance and Calédonie ensemble do not hold a majority in the Congress. There is little chance that an alliance can be made between them in this last term of the Congress under the Noumea Accord. The ditch between Avenir en Confiance and Calédonie ensemble is so deep that they won’t be able to get out of it.”

Roch Wamytan, the head of the FLNKS Sud list, also emphasised that the main barrier to independence for New Caledonia was in Paris, not Noumea. Speaking to an election meeting this week in Koutio, Wamytan said: “Even with all these political parties before us, we should remember that our adversary is the French State, and the French State does not want this country to become independent….Our adversary is not the political parties ranged before us – it’s the state that is behind them, the French State that colonised our country.”