Two expectations marked the lead-up to the independence referendum in New Caledonia on Sunday (4 October): that it was likely to be another “no” and bad feelings were set to follow.
In the event, the “no” vote against independence won with 53.26%, down on the result in 2018 when it was 56.7%.
The French President, Emmanuel Macron, called the referendum result a gesture of confidence in the French Republic, which he welcomed with gratitude. The follow-up should be bringing “all together”.
Kanak leaders pointed out the results showed the territory was steeply divided, at 53-47. They reiterated a long-standing response, saying the vote had been more than a referendum because it was on the destiny of their culture — which they considered non-negotiable. Conversations had been missing between the two sides and there would need to be dialogue and negotiations in the coming two years.
The “no” outcome this time does not yet finalise the independence issue; there is to be a statutory round of voting, a third referendum in another two years.
Political campaigns — clash of cultures
The two sides demonstrated their differences, political and cultural, in the kinds of events they put on last week to end their referendum campaigns.
The anti-independentists turned out a large crowd of 6,000, conducting a European-style election parade and rally, waving French flags. They brought out Polynesians from the Wallis and Futura islands to show some breadth of support and a file of citizens who’ve been denied a vote, under strict rules based on extended residency in New Caledonia. They appeared draped in black, demonstrating grievance and a frustrated sense of entitlement.
The independence movement headed by the Kanak Socialist party, FLNKS, conducted a long event involving religious and customary ritual and music performances by groups from throughout the islands of the territory. It was not European-style politicking, but on previous performances would help get out the vote in strong numbers across the Kanak community.
Two years ago, under the Matignon peace process laid out in 1988, New Caledonia commenced this phase of three possible referendums. Under the agreement, because the 2018 one decided “no”, there had to be the second one this year and the agreement stipulates that because it was also “no”, a final referendum can be held in 2022.
In arrangements intended to give some leeway to the aspirations of the native Kanak population, a “yes” in any of the referendums would automatically mean full independence. In ongoing, very concentrated negotiations over the decades, a special electoral roll was constructed recognising time spent in the territory, still excluding many long-term European French residents.
Things turning nasty?
The “no” voters, equating with the vast majority of the European, metropolitan-French and with the political Right-wing, have been getting nasty since receiving a surprise outcome in 2018. That was expected to have been a runaway victory for “no”, up to 70% with plans for New Caledonia representatives to go to Paris and demand that the Matignon process be cancelled once and for all.
Opinion polls which gave that impression were wrong, maybe failing to consult enough of the Kanaks living in villages, in the remoter areas. Outside observers detected an element of panic in the reaction to the more-balanced result — again, unease over a thwarted, assumed entitlement.At provincial elections in May last year, hardliners formed a new alliance to push out many of the longer-term loyalists, getting control of the movement to block independence. They called the alliance L'Avenir en Confiance – “confidently into the future” – enacting a French habit of naming parties with a slogan.
This has not pleased Kanak leaders. While continuing to participate in the all-parties committee that oversees the Matignon process, they have been disappointed in demanding fresh guarantees from Paris on issues like financial aid that might continue after independence.
Le Monde in September found Kanak leaders objecting to lack of impartiality on the electoral law, they said, to the point of “mockery” of Kanaks and their cause. After the flare-up into civil war in the 1980s, then a long peace while negotiations and referendums were conceived, said one of the veteran leaders: “We have lost 40 years.”
Another analysis, for the Lowy Institute, concluded that the situation has:
‘...revived old tensions and complicated essential discussions about future governance... As 30 years of peace agreements come to an end, stability in New Caledonia is now at risk.’
The Kanak proposition for independence, if they can win the final vote, is for a three-year transition, a permanent close interstate association with France and guaranteed rights to French residents as recognised under the law governing the referendums. France has undertaken to continue its financial support for the New Caledonian Government – A$1.5 billion per annum – for the transition but has promised nothing beyond that. It is a point of resentment on the Kanak side and was a major campaign argument for a “no” vote on the Right wing.
Kanak representatives have 26 out of 54 seats in the governing council, New Caledonia’s parliament, which elected their leader, Roch Wamytan, to its presidency — a head of government position in a power-sharing arrangement, if offset by the executive role of the French Government’s High Commissioner. A vote of one-third of the council can order the third referendum, assuring that it will take place if the Kanaks require it.
Such political and governmental power is still not enough to satisfy aspirations across a community that has shown such strong engagement and participation in the voting. It saw its cause as cultural and produced a strong statement, a near-unanimous turnout of its own ranks.
Kanaks quote the revered founder of the movement, Jean-Marie Tjibaou, to the French:
“So long as one of us is still alive here we will be giving you shit over independence” (“Tant qu’il y aura un Kanak en Nouvelle-Calédonie, on vous emmerdera avec l’indépendance”).
The FLNKS leadership talk about trouble keeping younger activists in a negotiating frame of mind and fear of “lasting alienation”.
Such determination and public backing is a strong suit in politics. Winning a vote might mean having to go further, to do much better outside of the bloc that is the Kanak population on its own. It would mean engaging in some European-style electioneering, persuasion and finding allies. Some potential may exist for that where the population is becoming more multi-cultural, not so rigidly divided on racial lines. Younger voters are thought to be more open to change.
Already, New Caledonia has the status of an associated country, able to enact its own legislation except in the areas of military and foreign policy, immigration, police and currency, which are retained by metropolitan France.
In the event of a third “no” vote in 2022, French Government heads, when drawn on the question, suggest a development of that arrangement — New Caledonia bound in a constitutional partnership with France.
A footnote to the story is that the vote is drawing intense interest from New Caledonia’s neighbours in the South Pacific and an additional close observer that has come on the scene.
Nickel mining is the mainstay that supports the New Caledonia economy, giving it a per capita Gross Domestic Product, if less evenly distributed, close to that of Australia. China has become by far the largest customer for New Caledonia’s nickel, with the value of sales rivalling or exceeding the annual subvention to the territory budget from Paris. The nickel issue underscores the wide strategic implications of the decision to be made in this island territory of some 270,000 people.
First published by Lee Duffield in Subtropic and EU Australia Online.
Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.
Support independent journalism Subscribe to IA.