The third independence referendum scheduled for New Caledonia on December 12 was to resemble the last two referendums in some of its main aspects, but this time there were worrying differences.
Basically, the indigenous Kanak movement, as a political and cultural movement, was well positioned to secure a huge, solid vote among its own people – but just below the majority it needed.
The policy of New Caledonia is divided along the line of the natives and the left against the French and the “European” right.
Not completely, but with a high per inhabitant GDP, close to that of Australia, heavily due to lucrative nickel exports, most of the non-native population gets a decent share of the wealth and tends to be conservative.
In this case, 2021 would see a return to a dangerous period when the indigenous Kanak community, declaring itself excluded, would stay away.
As the results became known, the turnout dropped to 43.9%, meaning the no was won by 96.49%. This brought New Caledonia back to the unilateral and boycotted referendums held in the 1980s, the results of which were scrapped after the outbreak of violent conflict – giving way to the Matignon Peace Accord and 40-year-old of peace.
And now? French President Emmanuel Macron, who changed an earlier “arm’s length” position to hold the referendum a year earlier than planned, to settle it, said a transition period has started, with all interests supposed to work together. It may not be very likely with the Kanak leadership now in a very dark state of mind.
Kanak political leaders have been keen to demonstrate governance and negotiation skills, being active in a power-sharing government for the past 30 years and never more than a few seats before an absolute majority in the Parliamentary Assembly from Noumea. The Kanak Party, the FLNKS provided the outgoing territorial president, Louis Mapou.
Their position, however, has always been straightforward: the exercise of ‘cohabitation’ in government was to prove and demonstrate their competence in modern government, just so that they could manage full independence – always adamant about it. this application.
They formally promised to guarantee the right of French Europeans to remain citizens of an independent republic as well as close association with the French state.
At that time, New Caledonia already had sufficient autonomy to legislate for itself on all aspects of government except in the areas of military and foreign policy, immigration, police and currency. , which are kept by mainland France.
France supports the territory’s budget with $ 1.5 billion AI each year, but will only commit to continuing it for a three-year transition period if New Caledonia becomes independent. This is a burning issue, where the Kanak side demands an unlimited guarantee of funding and the anti-independence parties can claim that independence will mean bankruptcy.
The long time since the first 1988 Matignon Accord saw the two sides keep the peace and make mutual concessions, with two main concessions, somewhat reluctantly conceded by the “No” side.
A special voters list for independence referendums imposes very strict residency and heritage standards, which means many long-time residents and members of former settler families do not get a vote. There is a second system of “handicap” where all “Yes“Voting would say yes to pure and simple independence, while the” “NoThe votes in 2018 and 2020 have just paved the way for the next referendum – 2021 being the one that will settle the yes or no principle, but with even more discussions and votes expected to follow. Some 185,000 people vote out of a total population of 270,000.
What is different?
This is the way it has been and should be.
But this year, the Kanak leadership called for the referendum to be postponed until September, believing that the loss of life due to the pandemic, with 300 dead in New Caledonia at the end of 2021, had committed people to long periods of mourning and cultural practices that would prevent them from going to the polls.
Speaking of forcing a boycott and then claiming the referendum result was not legitimate, they took the case to court in France, with reports midweek – four days before polling day – that ‘they had been repelled.
They also sent delegates to try to make their case at the United Nations in New York.
The French government has argued that despite an increase in cases of the Delta strain and the lurking Omicron, health services have COVID-19 under control in New Caledonia.
A second difference compared to the last two referendums was felt in the streets: no campaign on the previous scale with large gatherings. This was caused by the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 and by the Kanaks withdrawing from a vote they considered unfairly organized.
Then there is the difference in the South Pacific region.
Neighboring independent states, including Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu in the international body, the Melanesian Spearhead Group, have continued to press for New Caledonia to be “liberated”.
They have developed relations with China, France’s great rival in its role of guarantor of “security” in the South Pacific (and incidentally, the main client of nickel exports from New Caledonia); and could benefit from a new European Union security initiative.
France has so far worked closely in the area of defense and regional strategy with Australia and New Zealand, as a spin-off positioning itself as a sophisticated arms supplier across Asia. -Peaceful.
The severing of relations with Australia following the cancellation of their major AU $ 90 billion submarine contract is seen as both a damaging breach of the alliance and a hardening of attitudes in Paris on the question of independence.
According to this argument, to assert its position in the region, the French government would need to demonstrate that it has the strength to enforce its decisions.
Many Kanaks, especially among the young, feel underprivileged as among the poorest in their “own country” and only ask for full independence.
None shows the taste of a return to the Events, the conflicts between 1984 and 1988 which brought the territory closer to the civil war, but still fear that there is a fertile ground.
On the main island, Grande-Terre, Kanak villages and tribes are concentrated towards the north, where public order is maintained by the paramilitary gendarmerie and where bad relations with the population can degenerate into violent clashes with crowds. angry.
The hamburgers of the South including Noumea, which is home to most of the European population, patrolled by the National Police, are worried about nightly troubles, burglaries and car thefts, often and in a hurry by the local press.
In addition to the 200 election officials who flew in for the referendum, 1,400 additional police and soldiers, along with helicopters and armored vehicles, were deployed.
Kanak officials have said they will view refusal to postpone Sunday’s referendum a “declaration of war” – if not in the literal sense, perhaps to say, they cannot always hold the line against a violent response. .
On all the precedents since the end of Events, where they played a major role in the settlement, they may again be successful in keeping it peaceful.
The “Project” as it is called, to follow a “no” in 2021, must engage in new rounds of talks, for a settlement on the future. What sharing of power? What guarantees? What possibility is there to revisit the question of independence in the future?
If it can be agreed, if the niceties can continue to outweigh the passion and frustration, it would go to a fourth referendum, on all modalities, in 2023.
Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political and academic journalist.
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