Marching and singing for independence

By Nic Maclellan in Noumea, New Caledonia

A small but vibrant group of women marched through the streets of downtown Noumea on Saturday, calling for a ‘Yes’ vote in New Caledonia’s referendum on self-determination, to be held on 4 November.

It’s one of a number of actions initiated by New Caledonia’s independence movement to get out the vote. The same day, more than 2,000 people gathered at Fayard Park in Dumbea, on the outskirts of the capital. From 9am to 6pm, a parade of musicians donated their services for the ‘Concert for Independence’, trying to reach young people and encourage first time voters to turn out on referendum day.

Neither event was mentioned on the evening news bulletin on state-run TV, so staging public actions as well as community meetings is designed to raise awareness about the looming referendum – the culmination of a twenty year transition since the signing of the Noumea Accord in May 1998. With non-compulsory voting and the indigenous Kanak people a minority in its own land, mobilising potential supporters is all the more important.

Women on the march

Escorted by police through downtown Noumea, the women’s march carried banners stating ‘Women committed to a new nation’ and ‘We are ready for change – vote Yes on 4 November’. Singing and chanting ‘Oui’, they carried signs saying Yes for equality, for equity and for Kanaky-New Caledonia.

For women’s activist Rolande Trolue, New Caledonian women need to seize the opportunity that the referendum debate is creating, to highlight the status of women and their particular concerns.

“It’s important for all women to vote Yes for the independence of our country,” she said. “There are more women than men registered to vote – 88,000 women compared to 86,000 men. All over the country, we’re trying to raise awareness amongst women that they should come out and vote, and vote Yes for independence.”   

Trolue said that women had particular issues that need to be carried into the debate over New Caledonia’s future.

“We’re marching today to call for greater equality between men and women, to have more equity and justice,” she said. “We also want peace in our country, because it’s we women who carry the message of peace. We want a country where everyone has their place, from all cultures, communities, ethnicities.”

Songs for independence

Throughout the day, hundreds of young people also headed for Fayard Park, to listen to a roster of local musicians playing kaneka – the fusion of rock and reggae that is wildly popular amongst New Caledonian youth. With only one bus an hour running from Noumea to the outlying town of Dumbea, there were disappointed faces at every stop, as people reliant on public transport realised that no one else could be sardined into the bus (at the same time as the Concert for Independence, Noumea Town Council – dominated by anti-independence politicians – had conveniently organised another concert in central Noumea).

The line-up in Fayard Park included up and coming musicians, as well as veterans of the kaneka scene. Headline act was Vamaley, a band that has produced a dozen albums since it was formed on the west coast town of Temala during the 1980s. They were joined by a dozen other popular groups, including Nodeak from the island of Mare, as well as Kirikitr, whose album ‘Ley’ was first released in 1991.

Families stretched out on mats to listen to the music, while kids and dogs run riot alongside an impromptu soccer match. Young and not so young danced along to well-known songs, while others browsed amongst a bevy of food stalls.

The park was a sea of Kanaky flags. This multi-coloured symbol of the Kanak independence struggle was first raised in December 1984 by the late Jean-Marie Tjibaou, leader of the Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) independence movement.

Located near the stage was a tent housing a small team of independence activists, who have been working to ensure that indigenous Kanaks are formally registered to vote for the November referendum. The FLNKS has established an office in the rue d’Alma in downtown Noumea, to provide information about registration, voting booths and proxy votes. For the day, the office relocated to Fayard Park.

Long-time campaigner Mado Ounei said that although the formal registration period closed last month, it was still possible for voters to appeal to the French High Commission for a last minute registration.

“For many years, it’s been clear that thousands of Kanaks were not properly registered on the general electoral roll, as well as the special roll for the November referendum,” Ounei said. “Because of our work, many, many people are now registered, but there are still some Kanaks who cannot decide on the future of their own land.”

Throughout the day, people dropped by to check if their names appear on the electoral lists, or to find out where polling booths are located in their local municipality. Others asked about access to decentralised polling booths in Noumea – in order to avoid making the expensive trip back to vote in the outlying Loyalty Islands or Belep, six special polling booths will be established in Noumea for people who have migrated from the islands to the capital.

Getting out the vote

Beyond registration, the FLNKS must encourage people to actually vote, in a climate where even some long-time independence supporters are uncertain about what an independent future would bring. The FLNKS has been busy producing pamphlets and information bulletins, explaining economic options for an independent state and how to replace French State subsidies for pensions, education and health services.

Jean-Pierre Djaiwe, spokesperson of the Party of Kanak Liberation (Palika), called on the audience to vote Yes. He acknowledged a level of uncertainty about the future, but also stressed the great opportunity, stating that there would not be a “brutal rupture” with France.

“Unfortunately, there are some who are afraid, afraid of what will happen the day after the vote, the black hole that comes after 4 November,” he said. “But it’s clear – a statement just released by the French State, at the request of the independence movement, sets out what will happen if either the Yes or the No carries the day.

“There are some who are fearful if there’s a Yes, fearful for the future of our country. But the French State has clearly stated that if Yes is the result, that there will be time for discussion, for debate, for a period of transition towards a new State. So don’t be scared – we are here to say that we must act with our hearts, with dignity, to create a new country.”

The independence movement, forged in the 1980s, faces a special challenge to engage younger Kanaks. Many first time voters for the referendum were not born when the Noumea Accord was signed twenty years ago by the French State, the FLNKS and conservative anti-independence politicians (let alone during ‘les évènements’ in 1984-88, the period of armed conflict between supporters and opponents of independence when the FLNKS created its own parallel institutions).

The Noumea Accord has created significant economic reforms and established a multi-party government and new political institutions, with an FLNKS majority in two of three provincial assemblies. But over the last twenty years, young, unemployed Kanaks have seen pro-independence ministers, always a minority in the Government of New Caledonia, backing right-wing economic and social policies in the interest of cabinet solidarity. Many Kanak youth have not benefitted from the significant funds flowing from Paris to Noumea since the signing of the Noumea Accord, or accessed the training opportunities that benefit those New Caledonians who already have university degrees.

Aloisio Sako, leader of the Rassemblement Démocratique Océanienne (RDO), acknowledged these concerns, but told the crowd it was now time for action.

”I understand that some of you young people are disheartened,” he said. “But I say to you from the FLNKS, take up that hope again. It’s in your hands, it’s through your ballot paper. You’ll hear the opinion polls say it’s all over. But you young ones, I have confidence in you. Join us on 4 November.”

 “We are less than a month away from the birth that we’ve been hoping for, the child that will be known as Kanaky-New Caledonia,” he added. “In the future, will you be able to say ‘I helped give birth to that child through my vote’?”