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By Nic Maclellan in Noumea, New Caledonia
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe will fly into New Caledonia for one day next Monday, immediately after New Caledonia’s referendum on self-determination this Sunday, 4 November.
Arriving at the French High Commission in Noumea at 9.15am, he has a packed schedule of political meetings with representatives of parties supporting and opposing independence. The schedule includes a lightening visit to the northern provincial capital of Koohne, to meet the leaders of the two major independence parties: Daniel Goa, president of Union Calédonienne (UC) and Paul Neaoutyine, president of the Parti de Liberation Kanak (Palika).
A quick press conference at the High Commission, then it’s back to the international airport at La Tontouta, a hurried final meeting with the Control Commission established to co-ordinate the referendum, and he’s on the plane, wheels up and back to Paris. It seems that it’s worth the long flight to capture the headlines, and calm tensions after the inevitable fallout from either a Yes or No decision in New Caledonia’s referendum on independence.
The French State presents itself as a neutral umpire between the contending parties in the Pacific dependency. But in reality, France has longstanding strategic interests in the Pacific region, extending its status as an “Indo-Pacific” power. During his visit to New Caledonia last May, French President Emmanuel Macron stated that France would not be the same without New Caledonia within the French Republic, hardly a neutral position before this month’s referendum!
In spite of this, the French government is eager to emphasise to the international community that the referendum, established under the 1998 Noumea Accord, is well-managed and administered by neutral and impartial administrators.
The French government has established a Control Commission for the referendum, whose president is Francis Lamy, a councillor of the French Council of State (France’s supreme court for administrative justice).
In Noumea this week, Francis Lamy said that the members of the Commission have been nominated by independent authorities: “The members of the Commission are themselves people who have an independent status, as a magistrate and councillors within the Council of State. Clearly, to undertake this role, you must be neutral, impartial and independent. Our mission is to ensure the correctness and impartiality of the referendum.”
Other Commission members include Sophie Lambremon and Robert Parneix, both councillors with the Court of Cassation, France’s highest appeals court for civil and criminal matters; Guy Quillevere, President of the Administrative Tribunal in Noumea; and Stephane Gueguein, first councillor with the Administrative Tribunal and the Court of Administrative Appeal.
Beyond this, France has deployed a large contingent of people to monitor the conduct of voting on Sunday. The 250 delegates were chosen from 600 applicants and include French magistrates, senior public servants, election and administrative specialists and university academics. According to Lamy, “due to their professional role, they have both expertise and the capacity to guarantee the greatest neutrality and impartiality.”
It’s a large group to fly half way round the world, but the French government is working to ensure that there can be little opportunity to criticise the operation of the referendum.
Lamy noted: “If we as Commission members are not present in the voting stations, in all the voting stations, then we must be represented by delegates. So these delegates will be located in all the municipalities, in all the voting stations, all across the territory.”
He added: “We made the decision to have so many people, because if we had made the choice of having a smaller number in order to save money, say 30 or 40 delegates, people might rightly ask why we have people in some places and not others. We wanted to treat everyone in the same way and we wanted our monitoring to be effective.”
The French delegates arrived in Noumea last Tuesday and spent two days in a training session at the University of New Caledonia, undertaking a crash course in the background and procedures of the referendum.
As many of the delegates will be deployed to voting booths in the North and Loyalty Islands where indigenous Kanaks are the majority of the population, they were also provided a brief (very brief!) introduction to Kanak culture and society. It will be interesting to see the interaction of French legalism and Pacific modes of decision making!
Beyond this, France has also deployed more police officers and military troops in the lead up to Sunday’s vote. In case of any possible disturbances or raucous celebrations, Noumea has been declared a zone under police authority, while the rest of the country will be a zone managed by the gendarmerie. Some 300 military troops have been deployed to assist with the logistics of voting day and transport of delegates and equipment to the outer islands.
Controlling the campaign
As well as monitoring the actual vote on 4 November, the Control Commission has already made a series of decisions regulating the conduct of the official referendum campaign.
Under French electoral law, there is close control over who can join the official campaign, and display posters outside polling booths advocating a Yes or No vote. Between 22 October and 3 November, five approved parties or coalitions have been allocated official time for nightly TV broadcasts, until a media blackout takes effect over the weekend.
In the official campaign, there are two groups favouring a Yes vote: Union d’Indépendance Nationale (UNI) and the UC-FLNKS and Nationalists Group. For the No vote, there are three conservative anti-independence groups: Calédonie Ensemble (CE); Les Républicains calédoniens (LRC) and the coalition of Rassemblement-Les Républicains (LR) and the Mouvement populaire calédonien (MPC).
Francis Lamy explained: “In relation to the campaign, the Commission took some key decisions. This involved determining which parties could participate in the official referendum campaign, determining the nature of the posters which can be placed officially outside the voting booths, the campaign documents which can be addressed to electors, dividing the amount of speaking time to be allocated for official campaign broadcasts and other questions.”
As well as the officially approved parties, the small pro-independence Parti Travailliste (PT- Labour Party) also applied to the French High Commission for official campaign status. However, PT was rejected by the authorities, as it has called since July for non-participation in the referendum, regarding it as “fraudulent” because of restrictions on the number of Kanak voters.
PT leader Louis Kotra Uregei announced: “This would not hinder us from participating in the campaign, neither for Yes or No, but rather to denounce colonialism, the false impartiality of the French State and to call for a true right to self-determination.”
On behalf of the Control Commission, Francis Lamy said that a second crucial task for is the correction of the electoral lists.
“For this referendum, there is a separate electoral list, determined by the Matignon and Noumea Accords and the Constitution,” he said. “We have to ensure that everyone who meets the qualifications for this list can be registered on the list and effectively participate.”
New Caledonia has three different electoral rolls: one general electoral roll for the French National Assembly and Senate, which is open to all French nationals of voting age; another restricted annex for New Caledonians who vote for the local provincial assemblies and Congress; and yet another list with a different cut-off date for eligibility to participate in Sunday’s referendum.
To complicate matters, the French courts have ruled that all voters registered for the referendum must also be listed on France’s general electoral roll. This has been a major problem over the last few years, as thousands of indigenous Kanaks have never been properly enrolled on the general roll. FLNKS leaders have long criticised the French state for failing to properly regulate the registration of voters, given this was clearly a problem from the beginning of the twenty-year Noumea Accord transition.
Earlier this year, the France government accepted that another 11,000 people holding Kanak customary status or common law civil status should be added to the general roll. But the long delay by the French state to resolve the issue of voting rights has threatened to delegitimise the vote.
With extra efforts over the last year by the French High Commission in Noumea, the number of correctly registered people has risen from 153,000 in 2016 to 174,154 when the referendum electoral roll was finally released on 31 August. Since August, the Control Commission has added at least 400 extra people, who should have been on the list but were not included through administrative errors.
Under France’s civil code, people can hold civic rights under common law or under customary law for indigenous Kanaks: for the November referendum, there are 94,034 voters with common law status and 80,120 people holding customary status.
Lamy noted that this power extends right up to D-Day on 4 November: “Even on the day of the referendum, the Commission can exercise its power to correct the list, because it has delegates in every voting booth, in contact with the High Commission and appropriate administrative authorities.”
Alongside the official French Control Commission, there is another, smaller, level of monitoring from the United Nations and the Pacific Islands Forum.
Since 2016, the United Nations has sent technical experts to monitor the work of New Caledonia’s Special Administrative Commissions – the bodies which update the electoral rolls each year, as well as the special list for the referendum. This year, the United Nations has also sent a team of 13 electoral experts to monitor the actual referendum, headed by Tadjoudine Ali-Diabacte, former Deputy Director of the UN’s electoral assistance division.
At a campaign meeting last week in the working class suburb of Riviere Salee, I noticed a few people at the back of the room who seemed out of place – it was a team of three United Nations experts quietly monitoring the referendum campaign meeting. I approached team leader Mr Ali-Diabacte for an interview, but he politely declined, saying that his team was unable to speak publicly.
In a written statement, he noted that “the objective of this mission is to monitor the development of the referendum process, then present a report to the UN Secretary General on the context and the technical aspects of the consultation. In contrast to an electoral observation mission, the UN Panel of Experts will make no public declaration, neither on the process nor on the results of the referendum.”
Following a decision of Pacific leaders at the September Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru, there is also a Forum ministerial mission in New Caledonia this week. Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor is joined by ministers from Vanuatu and Nauru, supported by staff from the Forum Secretariat in Suva.
FLNKS mobilises for participation
The independence movement Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) is also mounting an unprecedented effort to send scrutineers to monitor each polling booth.
Last Tuesday, the FLNKS organised a training workshop for the hundreds of people required to act as delegates and scrutineers, to monitor the counting of votes.
“For normal elections, independence parties usually don’t appoint scrutineers for polling booths where the majority of voters are clearly opposed to independence, such as in rural towns like Farino,” said Gerard Reignier of the Union Calédonienne party. “But this time, where every vote counts, we want to have people in every municipality, to monitor those coming to vote, and ensure the polling officials assist them as required.”
The FLNKS is also mobilising to assist its supporters to travel to their home municipality, to vote where they are registered. There are many who can’t travel for reasons of disability, illness or work commitments. New Caledonia has an elaborate system for proxy voting, which is relatively simple for local elections, but requires significant paperwork for the referendum.
One population that can’t attend the polling stations are New Caledonia’s prisoners. Because of the nature of colonial justice in the French dependency, over 90 per cent of prisoners in the Camp Est jail at Nouville are indigenous Kanaks. Under French law, people convicted of serious crimes can lose their civic rights, including voting rights. But many prisoners within Camp Est have been jailed for minor crimes and are still eligible to vote.
Independence activist Mado Ounei has been a tireless campaigner, working to ensure that as many Kanaks as possible are not only registered to vote in Sunday’s referendum, but can actually fulfil their civic duty.
“For some time, we’ve been working with the families of Kanaks who make up the bulk of the prison population,” she said. “From more than 230 eligible prisoners, the FLNKS has assisted 84 to get proxies.”
For Wassissi Konyi, one of the co-ordinators of the FLNKS Yes campaign, there are crucial logistics required to ensure that people can get to vote in the home village or tribe.
“We have asked the RAI [inter-urban bus company] to put on extra busses over the weekend, so that people who live in Noumea can be sure they can get home in time to vote in the municipality where they are registered.
“Even then, there are poor people and youth who cannot afford to travel,” he said. “So we have asked for FLNKS-controlled town halls to organise their own buses, to carry people from Noumea to the north and the east coast.”
Pascal Sawa, mayor of Waa Wi Lûû (Houailou) has arranged for two free buses that will leave Noumea at 6am, picking up passengers en route for the three hour trip across the central mountain range on New Caledonia’s main island Grande Terre.
With just two days to go, this referendum is just another stage in an ongoing debate over New Caledonia’s political status. There is the possibility of a second vote in 2020 if the No vote prevails on Sunday, as well as a referendum scheduled for Bougainville in 2019 or 2020. West Papuan nationalists pushing for the same process, and New Caledonia’s future will impact on French Polynesia, which was relisted with the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation in 2013. It’s clear that the issue of self-determination will remain on the regional agenda in coming years.
SOURCE: ISLANDS BUSINESS/PACNEWS
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