Inside Story

“Our accession to sovereignty is inevitable”

A vote against independence in New Caledonia this weekend won’t end the quest for nationhood

Nic Maclellan 2 October 2020 2533 words

Kanak leader Paul Néaoutyine speaking at a pro-independence meeting in Kone on Monday. Theo Rouby/AFP via Getty Images

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

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

At a time of economic uncertainty, many voters worry whether it’s the right time for change. But for Kanak leader Paul Néaoutyine, “our accession to sovereignty is inevitable.”

In the lead-up to New Caledonia’s first referendum in November 2018, conservative politicians predicted the independence movement would get only 30 per cent support. In the event, 43 per cent voted in favour of independence, disheartening many opponents of independence and opening the way for this weekend’s referendum.

When I ask Roch Wamytan, speaker of New Caledonia’s Congress, whether the independence movement can win, he responds cautiously. “I am hopeful that we will increase our score,” says the veteran member of the independence party Union Calédonienne. “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. Negotiations with the French government would cover the transfer of sovereign powers such as defence, foreign policy, currency and the justice system; partnerships with France on nationality and dual nationality; membership of the United Nations, the World Bank and other multilateral institutions; and funding to replace the many French public servants who staff the local administration.

If there’s a majority against independence, the status quo is retained, maintaining political structures and legislative powers created under the Noumea Accord. But another No vote opens the way to a third referendum in 2022, and the FLNKS has already stated it will continue down this path to decolonisation.

It was the shock result in the 2018 referendum that led to the formation of a conservative alliance of six anti-independence parties, says Kanak politician Roch Wamytan. Dubbed “The Loyalists,” this coalition wants 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 tells me. “But the final result on the night of 4 November 2018 showed quite the contrary.” The debate has sharpened since then, says Wamytan. “This time, the anti-independence groups are more on the offensive.”

Louis Mapou is leader of the Union Nationale pour l’Indépendance, one of two independence groups within New Caledonia’s Congress. He agrees that this year’s debate is more polarised, and dismisses pledges by the French government that they 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 ago, 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 with his prolonged display of apparent indifference.

For months, Union Calédonienne president Daniel Goa has been sharply critical of the new French prime minister. “Since his appointment, we have had no discussion, no exchanges,” says Goa. “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. The two parties challenge each other during provincial and municipal elections, but unity has held during the referendum campaign and a number of smaller parties supporting independence have also joined the campaign.

In the lead-up to the 2018 referendum, the left-wing Parti Travailliste 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 the Parti Travailliste and USTKE are calling for a Yes vote, joining with other indigenous activists to form the Mouvement Nationaliste pour la Souveraineté de Kanaky, or MNSK. Although smaller than the FLNKS, the MNSK will mobilise pockets of support among voters who abstained last time in the rural north and Loyalty Islands.

The Parti Travailliste promotes Kanak sovereignty, but founder 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 but most non-Kanak communities 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.

Today, however, there are signs of a shift towards pro-independence sentiment among younger voters, in rural areas, and even among the many islanders who have migrated to New Caledonia from Vanuatu, Tahiti, and Wallis and Futuna.

The creation in March last year of a new political party, Eveil Océanien, highlights the desire to move beyond a Yes/No binary. Drawing support from the large Wallisian and Futunan community — more than eight per cent of the electorate — the new party has created an “islander majority” in Congress by supporting the independence groups in key votes. Last July, for example, EO’s three votes contributed to the re-election of Union Calédonienne politician Roch Wamytan as head of the legislature.

For the first time, Eveil Océanien has said its supporters should decide for themselves whether to vote Yes or No, a significant shift from the historical loyalty to France in the Wallisian community.

Significant cultural and political shifts are also evident in the Northern Province, which has been managed by a pro-independence administration for more than thirty years. Living and working together is slowly changing opinions among Caldoche farmers, descendants of French colonial settlers, who have lived in the north for generations and were bitterly opposed to independence during the conflicts of the 1980s.

In an interview with Le Monde, provincial president Paul Néaoutyine highlighted the economic “rebalancing” in the north created by the Noumea Accord.

Néaoutyine is the long-time leader of the Parti de Libération Kanak and the Union Nationale pour l’Indépendance. He said that his administration is focused 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,” he told the newspaper. “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.”

One key objective of the independence movement since the 1970s has been to break French control over mining and nickel smelting, key sectors in New Caledonia’s economy. For decades, 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 Noumea.

The signing of the Noumea Accord in May 1998 was preceded by a deal that transferred 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 happen.

Patricia Goa, a key adviser to Paul Néaoutyine and herself a member of the national Congress, lives in the tribe of Baco, outside the provincial capital Koohne. She 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. She 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,” says Goa. “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 we 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 has looked beyond simply exporting ore to traditional markets in France, Japan and Australia. The Northern Province administration has established offshore smelters in South Korea and China, through joint ventures between SMSP and the Korean company Posco and the Chinese corporation Yinchuan.

New Caledonia’s president, Thierry Santa, a leader of the anti-independence Loyalist alliance, recognises that historical differences between elements of the independence movement are being replaced by unity over resources policy. “The attitude taken by Union Calédonienne about control of the minerals sector has sharply radicalised compared to the past,” Santa tells me. “Until now, UC had always been more pragmatic and less doctrinaire. 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.”

Among those calling for a Yes vote were hundreds of young demonstrators who marched through central Noumea on 19 September, bearing the multicoloured flag of Kanaky. But the vibrant protest masked a more serious mood among young Kanak, who see training and education as a crucial part of the struggle.

“Even if we are losing our direction, we must continue to go to school to become better trained adults,” twenty-four-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 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 turnout of young Kanak voters, and the FLNKS is working hard to mobilise people who are wary of old rivalries among 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 twenty-first-century realities, using social media and talking to youth who are wary of division within the political elite.

“We can feel on the ground that people want more information,” she says. “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: “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 historical 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 an economic downturn in New Caledonia. China is New Caledonia’s main export market, but US–China tensions and the global recession create uncertainty in the nickel sector.

The No campaign seeks to roll back many economic, social and political advances created by the Noumea Accord. But the flourishing of bleu-blanc-rouge French flags during their campaign belies the reality that many New Caledonians are looking to regional partners like China, Korea and Australia for trade, tourism and services.

Charles Wea has represented the FLNKS in Australia and 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,” says Wea. “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 Melanesian Spearhead Group and Pacific Islands Forum, New Caledonians have 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. “For the FLNKS,” says Magalie Tingal, “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,” she says. “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.