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New Caledonia, an idyllic French island territory in the southwestern Pacific, votes Sunday on whether to seek full independence from Paris.
Thirty years in the making, Sunday’s referendum will call 174,154 voters to the polls to test the appeal of remaining a part of France, a vector of state subsidies but also, some feel, a kind of neglect.
France took possession of the tropical archipelago in 1853, and the Pacific territory – like Australia, located 2,000 km to the west – began its colonial period as a penal colony. Declared a French Overseas Territory in 1946, New Caledonia is one of 13 such overseas territories -- the so-called “confetti of the French empire” – scattered around the globe. Nickel-rich, New Caledonia is home to 269,000 people, 39 percent of whom are indigenous Melanesians, known locally as Kanaks, while 27 percent are Caldoches, descendants of French settlers, alongside a smattering of other minorities from Polynesia, Indonesia and Vietnam.
In the 1980s, longstanding resentments between Kanaks and Caldoches, not least over indigenous land seizures by colonists, boiled over into deadly violence that claimed more than 70 lives. In 1988, between the two rounds of the French presidential election, a violent attack and a two-week-long hostage-taking by Kanak separatists on Ouvéa Island left four gendarmes, two soldiers and 19 separatist militants dead.
The French-brokered reconciliation that followed sought to rebalance wealth and political power. Subsequent accords gave New Caledonia its own special status that has allowed for gradually increasing autonomy. A local assembly based in the capital, Nouméa administers its own affairs in many areas, although Paris still controls the islands’ defence, foreign affairs and higher education policy. For some, New Caledonia’s relative autonomy today is reason not to fear an independent future. For others though, that autonomy dilutes the need to make a clean break from France.
Economic interests lie at the heart of the debate. Opponents of independence argue that New Caledonia, aided by French subsidies, has a higher standard of living than say, neighbouring Vanuatu. Kanaks supporting independence though complain of endemic discrimination and the high price of goods and real estate, which are pushed up by the high wage levels of French civil servants.
The lead-up to the high-stakes referendum, observers note, has been relatively peaceful, considering the fraught, decades-long lead-up to Sunday’s vote.
“We really sense a certain serenity in the end, as if the referendum wasn’t going to be all that important, when it is after all punctuating a 30-year process of peace and decolonisation,” the Université de Nouvelle-Calédonie’s Pierre-Christophe Pantz told FRANCE 24 on Thursday. “But it is precisely because of that, of those 30 years, that people can’t see anything other than peace and can’t imagine that anything else could happen.”
Few expect New Caledonia to vote in favour of independence from France on Sunday, with polls suggesting that as many as 69 percent of voters could turn down the prospect of parting ways.
“We have everything we need with France – schools, hospitals,” suburban Nouméa homemaker Marceline Bolo, who describes herself as “proud to be French”, told Agence France-Presse.
Indeed, for “no” voters, one argument for staying on with France is the 1.3 billion euros that Paris injects into New Caledonia’s coffers annually and fears over what that loss would represent.
New Caledonia boasts a quarter of the world’s known supply of nickel, a core component for manufacturing stainless steel, electronics and coins. But it has suffered of late from its dependence on a natural resource that lost half of its value between 2011 and 2016.
“We are eager for this election to happen. It has frozen investments and the intentions of business leaders, who no longer have any visibility,” Daniel Ochida, president of New Caledonia’s Medef business confederation, told AFP, highlighting fears over lost French subsidies should independence prevail at the ballot box. “Most business leaders want us to continue with France so as not to disrupt the economy,” he added.
But not everyone agrees that the dividends of the current association with Paris ultimately warrant remaining French. “This vote is a farce because it has been announced in advance that the no-to-independence side is going to win, so there is a real credibility problem with the vote,” Bernard Alleton, a member of the Solidarité Kanaky collective told FRANCE 24 on Thursday.
Doubts have also been raised over voter lists since only indigenous Kanaks and New Caledonians who have been residing in the territory since at least December 31, 1994.
The 1998 Nouméa Accord requires France to allow an independence referendum by November 2018; it also provided for two further referenda to be held before 2022 in the event of a “no” result after this first vote.
Alleton notes that separatists favour moving forward on Sunday’s vote anyway with an eye to tabulating support ahead of the subsequent referenda planned.
“What is legitimate is the Kanak people’s demand for independence in order to have its rights, to recuperate its land and to be able to develop and keep its culture,” said Alleton, who argues that Kanaks remain marginalised in New Caledonian society.
As for the big picture, meanwhile, there is also a geopolitical argument for maintaining the link with a major European economic and political power, even one halfway across the globe.
There are concerns that China could take advantage of a newly independent New Caledonia to increase its influence in the Pacific. Some observers fear that a newly independent New Caledonia is more susceptible to being drawn into Beijing’s orbit – as has happened in neighbouring Vanuatu.
“It’s a trade war,” Chérifa Linossier, president of New Caledonia’s small- and medium business confederation, told AFP. “Even with France and Europe, I don’t think that we are armed in the face of China, which invests $3 trillion in the Pacific every year.”
French President Emmanuel Macron has spoken of the importance of ties between France and New Caledonia in containing the threat of Chinese hegemony in the region.
Still, on a visit to Nouméa in March, Macron told a crowd six months before the referendum that he would not take a side in the campaign. “It isn’t up to the head of state to take a stance on a question that is put to Caledonians alone and such a stance actually would only disturb and bias the debate,” the French leader said, before adding, “What I want to tell you from the bottom of my heart… is that France would not be the same without New Caledonia.”
Macron is due to speak just after the results on Sunday’s vote are announced. French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, for his part, will travel to New Caledonia on Monday with Overseas Territories Minister Annick Girardin.
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