New Caledonia Independence Referendum: Not angry for nothing

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President Macron visits New Caledonia ahead of referendum (Screenshot via YouTube)

The long-awaited referendum in New Caledonia is approaching quickly. Media editor Dr Lee Duffield assesses some of the options and omens, in Noumea.

IT LOOKS LIKE a simple case of voting "Yes" or "No" to clear the air on independence for this far-flung French dependency.

But, not so easy.


The Referendum on 4 November plainly is looking much more complicated than that, with any and every observer constantly talking about the “lendemain” – the day after – what will start happening then?

In its background, this prospective new country of just under 300,000 citizens has to deal with the existence of two distinctly different main cultures and some history of violent conflict.

Much is at stake for many, where a healthy economy, maintained by heavy mining of nickel, makes it overall a “first world” environment.

Predictably, the battle lines exist between conservative political parties that want a “No” vote and centre-left or socialist ones that want “Yes”. Comfortably-off European settlers lead the “No” side and organisations representing “have-not” indigenous Kanaks are the standard-bearers for “Yes”.


Some 100,000 Europeans, overwhelmingly French, have access to a comfortable “postcolonial” kind of life, where the French state still contributes directly – and strategically – a hefty percentage of the territory budget — over AU$1.5 billion per year. Much of it is wages for public employees.

Still four months out from polling day, debates have started around this money and the existence of first-class government services, from parks to roads, extensive electrification, a new hospital, steadily improving the provision of education and so on.

The right-wing side is suggesting it might well be pulled out on the “day after” if the vote is “Yes” and have been circulating a certain saying, about the Kanaks’ claim to New Caledonia and its riches. It is, that they want “le beurre et l’argent du beurre”, both the butter and the money for it — something like having your cake and eating it too.

It is a rejection of claims by independentists that on the “day after” they would be looking to keep up a close association with France — or would be able to.


As an argument, it has bumped onto a semi-submerged reef in the form of  a counter-argument that supports having negotiated settlements and, underneath that, a more basic moral argument about personal identity: that Kanaks are the original owners, collectively wealthy stakeholders entitled to high status — who have, in fact, already contributed heavily to the entire deal.

Five young Kanak men, school leavers encountered in Noumea’s main park – Kanaky Daita Weinane, Edouard Kate, Eta Roine, Noel Wazone and Siwene Wayaridge – explained their support for “Yes” in such basic terms:

“This country belongs to us. We are in our own homeland here. We are at home.”

As well:

“It is always the same, like the Australian Aborigines, White is higher up and Black is lower down.”

Five Kanak high school girls nearby – Zanako Laue, Sevena Hnalep, Eliane Read, Rosemary Wenehoua and Morgane Maperi – “voted” three-two for “No”. The “Yes” advocates said it was for the “freedom of the people”, the “No” supporters said, “We are not ready”.


Andre Qaeze Ihnim as a Kanak leader and part of the management of the Kanak broadcaster, Radio Djiido, says: 

“Both the Kanak community and French should find a place in the sun.”

He is concerned about strong expectations being raised and a possible return to ethnic conflicts at a time of independence, “if there is not enough to share”.


He says:

We are talking to our young people.

In our movement, some people are more hard. They do not any more want to talk about sharing and say we want the French to go home.

We ask them, 'If you would do it like that, then what would you do after that?' They may give expression to anger in their hearts but are always asked what they would do.

They do have some very good ideas but those would still need finance, technology and organisation. They are not angry for nothing, and we take the time to listen and explain.

What would the Kanak independentist movement itself set out to do, if they found on the “day after” that independence had been achieved and they could get into government?

“We would want to manage through consultation and a kind of negotiation, and would say: if you want to stay in the country, for it to be managed like this, then come and stay.”

A priority would be to improve conditions for more people, with higher priorities given to jobs, health, housing and education:

“You can see around Noumea that people don’t have houses to live in, plenty of youngsters don’t have jobs, there are basic needs like  eating and clean running water — we have to find solutions to this social and economic difficulty.”


Qaeze mentions a tax plan being proposed to bring down 80 per cent of proceeds from mining that was leaving the territory, which would split proceeds 51 per cent to state finances and 49 per cent to companies — but acknowledged obstacles to getting such revenue:

We have had the 30 years participation in government and can show we have the experience to do this.

We know that when you invest in a coconut tree you might have to wait over 15 years to be getting enough fruit to sell, but our opponents are trying to say we think it will be possible to get it right away.

Independentist political parties have been publishing economic proposals, like a recent document from the Caledonian Union (UC). This is premised on a continuation of French contributions through state budgets or a development program, suggesting some budget re-prioritisation, a possible state development bank and reduction of salaries budgets affected by structural bonuses paid to French public servants. (Those bonuses also currently being challenged in France itself by the Government of President Emmanuel Macron).

Other considerations include income from hosting French warships and military bases, where that country sought to maintain a geopolitical interest in the Pacific region.


In the campaign warfare now starting to roll out in news media, none of that is accepted as detailed or well-costed enough to explain an anticipated financial hit from French withdrawal.

In a territory where conservative interests have a majority among French voters, anti-independentists are the most at home in campaign politics run through media and have rolled up a strong lead in opinion polls for the “No” vote.

Some of those voters want to get a convincing win that would persuade opposition politicians to give up on obtaining a repeat referendum – which they would be able to do under the terms of the Accord – the long-standing agreement on New Caledonia brokered by France.

The strongest expectation on almost all quarters is that “No” will win and the “morning after” will see a new edition of the present system — cooperation, participation and a drive for consensus where it can be got.

Many public comments now coming from individual community leaders are in step with an intervention in the media this week (19 July), by Caledonia Together Party Leader Philippe Gomes, a centrist, former conservative member of the French National Assembly and long-time political figure in New Caledonia:

“Quand on ne dialoguait pas, on a connu la violence. Quand on a dialogue, cela s’est traduit par la paix.”

[When there was no dialogue, there was violence. When there was dialogue it enabled keeping the peace.] 


What follows from such advice is that past the short-term, there must be reform to meet grievances and allow major change if necessary.

A taste of the potential dissatisfaction that can follow the Referendum was given out this week by the separatist Labour Party, which has a seat on the 54-member New Caledonia Assembly. It has decided on a boycott of the poll, saying their side had been given to think independence was meant to follow the Accord, but they’d been “led up a blind alley”.

That disruptive act formed part of the current political mood, where members of the political community are already jostling for position ahead of general elections next year. One of the conservative parties changed leader, elected members from another boycotted a round of negotiations with the independentists and so on — all part of “normal” politicking in potentially very abnormal times. 


A way of seeing the scenario for New Caledonia is in its geographical expression on the main island, Grande Terre.

The South, taking in Noumea and surrounding areas, is well set up, running like any prosperous regional city in France.

The services are adequate and there is a buoyant civil society. This month saw active public debates over school canteens or government moves on agricultural policy; there is self-management by groups of citizens, in arts or sport, help for the homeless, or teams like the volunteer first-aiders Action Secours Oxygene (ASO2), who turn up at community events.

The North is a strongly Kanak area, with an active provincial government but it is by far the less developed area — calling to mind parts of Papua New Guinea though with better infrastructure.

The cultural mode there is communitarian-based in villages — in the words of Mr Qaeze, undergoing a "transition to modernity” while retaining culture.

In any future settlement, those are the two parts of a single world still wanting to be reconciled.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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