New Caledonia: “Our accession to sovereignty is inevitable.”

On Sunday, long-term residents in New Caledonia will go to the polls, to vote in a referendum on the political status of the French Pacific dependency. For New Caledonia’s independence movement, it’s just one more step on the long path to sovereignty and nationhood.

At a time of economic uncertainty during a global pandemic and recession, many voters may worry whether it’s the right time for change. But for Kanak leader Paul Neaoutyine, whether now or later, “our accession to sovereignty is inevitable.”

This is the second referendum to be held under the Noumea Accord, an agreement signed in May 1998 by the French state, anti-independence leaders and the independence coalition Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS).

The first referendum under the Noumea Accord was held in November 2018, with conservative politicians predicting the independence movement would only get 30 per cent support. However the final result showed 43 per cent in favour of independence, while nearly 57 per cent voted to remaining within the French Republic. Despite the victory for those opposed to independence, the size of the Yes vote disheartened many conservatives and opened the way for this Sunday’s second referendum.

Roch Wamytan is Speaker of the Congress of New Caledonia and a veteran member of the independence party Union Calédonienne, or UC. Asked whether the independence movement can win, he responds cautiously: “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.”

If a majority of voters say Yes on Sunday, the FLNKS has proposed a three year transition to nationhood. This would involve negotiations with the French government over the transfer of sovereign powers such as defence, foreign policy, currency and the justice system; the signing of partnerships with France on nationality and dual nationality; seeking membership of the United Nations, World Bank and other multilateral institutions; and guaranteeing funding to replace the many French public servants who staff the local administration.

If there’s a majority against independence, the political status quo is retained. Under the Noumea Accord, however, a No vote opens the way to a third referendum in 2022, and the FLNKS has already stated they will continue down the path to decolonisation.

Kanak politician Roch Wamytan says that the shock result in 2018 led to the formation of a conservative alliance of six anti-independence parties, dubbed “The Loyalists”, who want to roll back the achievements of the Noumea Accord.

“Last time, the anti-independence camp was almost drunk, intoxicated by opinion polls that suggested the No vote could be as high as 75 or 80 per cent,” Wamytan told me. “Many anti-independence people were quite reassured by the polling. But the final result on the night of 4 November 2018 showed quite the contrary. They were delirious in their dream of burying the call for independence. Even 30 years after the Matignon Accords, the desire for independence amongst the Kanak people was still very strong.”

Wamytan says that debate has sharpened since then: “This time, the anti-independence groups are more on the offensive. This was also reflected in the May 2019 elections, especially amongst the Europeans of the suburbs [of the capital Noumea]. When Madame Backes and her group got control of the Southern Province, they went on the offensive against the Kanak.”

Louis Mapou is leader of the Union Nationale pour l’Indépendance, the UNI parliamentary group in New Caledonia’s Congress. He agrees that this year’s debate is more polarised. Mapou also dismisses pledges by the French government to remain impartial above the fray: “As a partner, the French state has become biased in favour of a No vote for the referendum on 4 October.”

Just three months before the vote, French President Emmanuel Macron reshuffled his cabinet, appointing Jean Castex as his new Prime Minister. It took Castex until this week to make a parliamentary statement on New Caledonia, stunning supporters and opponents of independence alike by the apparent disinterest. For months, UC President Daniel Goa has been sharply critical of new French Prime Minister: “Since his appointment, we have had no discussion, no exchanges. He is not interested in this territory. President Macron has also sent us a high commissioner who is nothing more than a governor, and who lacks the profile for New Caledonia, which is in a process of emancipation and decolonisation.”

The FLNKS has long provided a framework to calm the often fractious relationship between its two largest members: Union Calédonienne and the Parti de Libération Kanak. This year, there is unity in action for the referendum campaign, with local Committees of Citizens and Nationalists in each municipality uniting independence supporters across party lines.

Outside the FLNKS, a number of smaller parties supporting independence have also joined the campaign. During the 2018 referendum campaign, the left-wing Party Travailliste, or PT, and the trade union confederation USTKE advocated “non-participation”, criticising concessions by the FLNKS and arguing that only the colonised Kanak people should vote. This year, however, both PT and USTKE are calling for a Yes vote, joining with other indigenous activists to form the Mouvement Nationaliste pour la Souveraineté de Kanaky (MNSK). Although smaller than the FLNKS, the MNSK will mobilise pockets of support amongst those members who abstained last time in the rural north and Loyalty Islands.

PT’s Louis Kotra Uregei says the objective is “to truly build the case [traditional house] of Kanaky, to welcome all those who have come to live with the Kanak people and become the people of Kanaky. Our struggle is not just for the Kanak, but for all those who have been recognised as ‘the victims of history’ – people who have been in the country for a long time, and who face the same problems as the Kanak face today.”

The 2018 referendum reflected the broad polarisation of New Caledonia’s politics, with most Kanak supporting independence and most non-Kanak opposed. The FLNKS must draw support from non-indigenous voters to win the referendum, given the Kanak people only make up 40 per cent of New Caledonia’s population, and a minority of Kanak voters are still reluctant to support independence.

There are signs of change however amongst younger voters, in rural areas, and for the many islanders who have migrated to New Caledonia from Vanuatu, Tahiti and Wallis and Futuna.

The creation in March 2019 of a new political party Eveil océanien, or EO, highlights the desire to transcend old divisions amongst younger voters. Drawing support from the large Wallisian and Futunan community, EO has created an “islander majority” in Congress, leading to the re-election of independence leader Roch Wamytan as head of the legislature. For the first time, EO has said its supporters should decide for themselves whether to vote Yes or No, a significant shift from the historic loyalty to France in the Wallisian community.

There are also significant cultural and political shifts in the Northern Province, which has been managed by a pro-independence administration for more than 30 years. The experience of living and working together is slowly changing opinions amongst Caldoche farmers – the descendants of French settlers who have lived in the north for generations, and who were bitterly opposed to independence during the 1980s.

Provincial president Paul Neaoutyine is the long-time leader of the Parti de Libération Kanak and the UNI parliamentary group. In an interview with Le Monde, Neaoutyine highlighted the economic “rebalancing” created by the Noumea Accord, with his administration focussed on reducing social and economic inequality in the rural north: “In the Northern Province, where I preside, we make sure that the benefit of our political actions goes to these people, and not in the pockets of a privileged minority. The law prioritising local employment would never have existed without the struggle of the independence movement. But it benefits all the citizens of the country, not only Kanak.”

Patricia Goa is a key adviser to the provincial president, and an elected UNI member in the national Congress.

“Today, we understand that we’re not only talking for the Kanak people,” she said. “The important thing to say is that even if we Kanak are a majority of independence supporters, it’s really a process for all New Caledonians living in Kanaky. It’s not just for us that we are struggling today. Let’s not create opposition amongst all the people living on this land. We’re not just talking about a people, we’re talking about a nation.”

Since the 1970s, a key objective of the independence movement has been to break French control over the mining industry and nickel smelting, the key economic sectors within New Caledonia. For decades, successive governments in Paris guaranteed a monopoly over smelting to the French corporation ERAMET and its local subsidiary Société le Nickel, which operates the Doniambo smelter in the capital.

The signing of the Noumea Accord in May 1998 was preceded by a deal that allowed the transfer of strategic deposits of high-grade nickel ore to the Northern Province, through its development agency SOFINOR and the SMSP mining company. This opened the way for the construction of a new nickel smelter at Koniambo in the north of the country – a major project that many conservatives predicted would never be realised.

Living in the tribe of Baco, outside the provincial capital Koohne, Patricia Goa has seen the rural north transformed by the construction of the smelter in a joint venture between the province, SMSP and the transnational corporation Glencore. Goa stresses that SOFINOR and SMSP hold 51 per cent control of Koniambo Nickel SAS, an unprecedented deal for a resource project in Melanesia.

“KNS is a major player in the economic rebalancing of our country,” she said. “New Caledonia holds one quarter of the world’s nickel and the nickel sector is the largest employer in New Caledonia. But nickel resources are not renewable. We really have to think about how are working for future generations – that’s what our cultural heritage is saying.”

To add value to New Caledonia’s vast mineral resources, the FLNKS have looked beyond simply exporting ore to traditional markets in France, Japan and Australia. The Northern provincial administration has now established offshore smelters in South Korea and China, through joint ventures between SMSP and the Korean company Posco and the Chinese corporation Yinchuan.

President of New Caledonia Thierry Santa, a leader of the anti-independence Loyalist alliance, recognises that historic differences between elements of the independence movement are being replaced by unity over resources policy.

“The attitude taken by Union Calédonienne – the largest pro-independence party – about control of the minerals sector has sharply radicalised compared to the past,” Santa told me. “The UNI has always been steadfast in its policy on the mining industry, but what we’ve seen over the last month is the UC President moving much closer to the policy expressed by UNI and the Northern Province.

“Until now, UC had always been more pragmatic and less doctrinaire,” Santa said. “They recognised the necessity of maintaining mining across the territory, and the need for diversity of production – for domestic use, for export, and for use by the overseas smelters. Now we see a united policy from all parts of the independence movement opposed to the export of ore, except to the overseas smelters.”

On 19 September, hundreds of young demonstrators marched through central Noumea bearing the multi-coloured flag of Kanaky, calling for a Yes vote. But the vibrant protest masked a more serious side to young Kanak, who see training and education as a crucial part of the struggle.

“Even if we are losing our bearings, we must continue to go to school to become better trained adults,” 24-year-old Pauline told journalists. “When you have a degree, you have more chance to build our country, to move it forward. You have to be serious. You can’t just go crying ‘Kanaky’ everywhere and expect to change things.”

As hundreds of first-time voters turn out in 2020, it’s worth remembering that the Noumea Accord was signed before they were born. The armed clashes of the mid-1980s are ancient history for younger voters, who have grown up under a multi-party government that includes both supporters and opponents of independence.

Despite this, the 2018 referendum saw a massive turn-out of young Kanak voters, and the FLNKS is working hard to mobilise people who are wary of old rivalries amongst politicians. Last July, FLNKS spokesperson Daniel Goa called for a general mobilisation of all political forces, calling on young people to participate: “Our youth must get involved and be active at local level. It is their fight and it will be their victory.”

Today, as a leading Yes campaigner in the north, Magalie Tingal says the independence movement has been forced to adapt to 21st Century realities, using social media and talking to youth who are wary of political division.

“We can feel on the ground that people want more information,” she said. “There are plenty of young intellectual Kanak who want more and more information about what independence means. Campaigning for independence in this millennium, we use a lot of social media, and even ten years ago we didn’t have that type of campaigning. People are listening but have done their own studies, so we can’t campaign like we did ten years ago.”

She highlights the need to decolonise minds as well as institutions: “Our elders put us on the path to decolonisation. But we are also talking about the decolonisation of our minds. Independence is scary for some people here, so we have to educate people through meetings, discussion and information. We are talking about living together.”

This referendum is framed by broader global realities. France has markedly improved its diplomatic relations with neighbouring Pacific states, undercutting historic support for the FLNKS. Australia – as the largest member of the Pacific Islands Forum – has forged a strategic partnership with Paris, seeing France as a bulwark against Chinese influence in the region. At the same time, the coronavirus pandemic has caused more than 31,000 deaths in France and led to border closures and economic downturn in New Caledonia. China is New Caledonia’s main export market, but US-China tensions and global recession create uncertainty in the nickel sector.

The No campaign mounted by the six-member Loyalist alliance seeks to roll back the economic, social and political advances created by the Noumea Accord. But the flourishing of bleu-blanc-rouge flags during the campaign belies the reality that many New Caledonians are looking beyond France towards Asia-Pacific partners like China, Korea and Australia for trade, tourism and services.

Charles Wea has represented the FLNKS in Australia and the Melanesian Spearhead Group, which unites nearby Melanesian nations. He says that an independent Kanaky-New Caledonia would maintain ties with France but build new relationships in the Pacific region.

“If New Caledonia were to become independent tomorrow, we would establish relations with countries that we share values with,” Wea said. “Secondly, we would build relations with countries where we have economic, political and cultural interests. For example, we already have an offshore smelter in Korea, so that’s the sort of country where we have to establish a bilateral relationship.”

Today, through the MSG and Pacific Islands Forum, New Caledonia has already built new trade and commercial ties to neighbours like Vanuatu and Fiji. The government of New Caledonia has begun to place representatives in French embassies in Canberra, Wellington, Suva, Port Vila and Port Moresby. Magalie Tingal argues: “For the FLNKS, independence doesn’t mean we close our doors to France or anyone. Independence opens us up to the international stage.”

Patricia Goa agrees that a Yes vote won’t lead to a rupture with France: “I’m not against France. I have spoken French since I was six years old, although I have my own language. I breathe French because of colonisation, that’s the fact. I know French history, maybe more than the French themselves. What we are saying is, we’ve come to a stage where the people are asking for sovereignty. What’s wrong with having cooperation with China and others? The difference is, we want to choose that relationship as a free state!”

Reporting for this article was supported by a Sean Dorney Grant for Pacific Journalism through the Walkley Public Fund

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