Independence thwarted, for now, in French Pacific

The non-indigenous people of New Caledonia assumed they would easily win an independence referendum. The results were a surprise. Nic Maclellan reports.

Photo: Massive youth vote for independence in Kanaky-New Caledonia (photo Nic Maclellan)
Kanaky youth vote for independence in New Caledonia (Credit: Nic Maclellan)

On 4 November, the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia held a referendum on self-determination, the culmination of a twenty-year transition period established by the 1998 Nouméa Accord.

After a peaceful day of voting, 56.4 per cent of registered voters decided to remain part of the French Republic, while 43.6 per cent voted yes for independence.

These bald figures suggest a setback for New Caledonia’s independence coalition, the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS), which has campaigned for independence and sovereignty since the 1980s.

In reality, the size of the yes vote gives the independence movement enough of a mandate to continue towards a further referendum in 2020. The FLNKS is encouraged by their increased support in working class suburbs, rural areas and an unprecedented youth vote.

Opinion polls had predicted a massive defeat for the independence movement. However, as the votes were counted, TV viewers could see concern on the faces of overconfident anti-independence politicians.

Early in the night, with the pro-independence vote hovering at 25-30 per cent, there was an air of triumphalism. As the night wore on and the vote for self-government rose to 30 per cent, then 40 and beyond, the faces of anti-independence leaders fell further.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe made a lightning visit to New Caledonia the day after. While welcoming the decision of islanders to remain within the French Republic, he also recognised the overwhelming support for independence amongst the indigenous Kanak people.

20 years in the making

New Caledonia is one of three French dependencies in the Pacific, alongside French Polynesia, and Wallis and Futuna. The indigenous Melanesian population, known as Kanak, are a minority of 39 per cent in their own country, after generations of colonial settlement and ongoing migration.

Annexed by France in 1853, the islands – located off the east coast of Australia – first served as a prison, then as a land of free settlement. The central mountain chain of the main island is rich with minerals and the country holds 25 per cent of global reserves of nickel. The nickel boom of the late 1960s, driven by the Vietnam War and the space race, saw new waves of migration from France and Wallis and Futuna.

There were historic Kanak revolts against French colonialism, led by Chief Atai in 1878 and Chief Noel in 1917. But the modern independence movement grew from the 1970s, drawing on radicalised students returning from France, a Kanak cultural renaissance, and the mainstream Union Calédonienne party’s change in direction from demanding autonomy to independence, under the leadership of Jean-Marie Tjibaou (a charismatic leader assassinated by a fellow Kanak in 1989).

The establishment of the FLNKS in 1984 saw armed clashes between independence activists, the French state and rightwing settlers. This period of conflict ended with the signing of the 1988 Matignon Agreements and a subsequent agreement in May 1998 known as the Nouméa Accord.

The 20-year transition under the accord has seen the transfer of many powers from Paris to Noumea and the creation of new political institutions, including a multi-party government, Kanak customary senate and three provincial administrations.

There has also been extensive economic ‘rebalancing’ between the wealthy southern province and the rural north and outlying Loyalty Islands, where the population is mainly Kanak. However, New Caledonia is still sharply divided between poor and rich, with poverty marked by ethnicity and geography – rural and indigenous communities lose out on every development indicator.

This gulf is most evident in the capital Nouméa, a city of yachts and squats. The anti-independence vote was strongest in Nouméa’s southern suburbs, where the wealthy own luxury apartments, boats and four-wheel drives, drawing massive salaries subsidised by French taxpayers. On the outskirts of the capital, more than 8,000 people live in squatter settlements.

Two worlds apart

The pro-independence vote on 4 November was drawn mainly from the Kanak electorate, with a majority of non-Kanaks – of European, Wallisian, Tahitian or Asian heritage – voting to remain with France.

The more populous south and the capital remain bastions of anti-independence sentiment, while regions where the majority of the population is Kanak showed overwhelming support for self-government: the Northern Province (75.8 per cent Yes) and the Loyalty Islands Province (82.1 per cent).

In contrast, the Southern Province, with a majority non-Kanak electorate, voted strongly 73.71 per cent to stay with France, with only 26.29 per cent of southern voters opting for independence.

Over many months, a slow-building groundswell of grassroots campaigning by the FLNKS and other independence groups led to a major mobilisation on ‘Jour-J’ (D-Day). With non-compulsory voting, thousands of Kanaks turned out, many of whom had never voted before.

The final victory is little comfort for the anti-independence right. Successive opinion polls had suggested the yes vote would be between 27 and 35 per cent. Conservative politicians had publicly threatened that a massive yes vote would open the way to roll back many achievements made by the Kanak people since the Nouméa Accord, including restrictions on the electoral roll for local political institutions, funding for the rural provinces and land reform. The right hoped the victory would allow Paris to push for the removal of New Caledonia from the United Nations’ list of non-self-governing territories.

But the referendum outcome is just one step in a longer process. The Nouméa Accord makes provision for a second referendum in 2020 in case of a no vote, which can be called by a third of the members of congress. With pro-independence parties currently holding 25 seats in the 54-member congress, they have the numbers to proceed to another referendum after provincial elections next May.

In the aftermath of the vote, most have realized that the Kanak independence movement has new wind in its sails. The quest for independence lives on in the hearts of a new generation.