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Shaping up for New Caledonia’s independence vote

  • July 7th, 2018
  • Posted by EU Australia

Opinion polls are saying electors in the independence referendum set for New Caledonia this year will strongly support staying with France.

Lee Duffield as a correspondent covered the original Paris negotiations on independence 30 years ago.

He says a meticulous deal coordinated by successive French governments has shortened the odds their way, but the sticking point is how the native Kanak people will wear any outcome.

Two polls taken in May and coinciding with a visit by the French President, Emmanuel Macron, were emphatic on two points: First, Opposition to independence for New Caledonia was running high (60% in one poll, 58% the other), and support for it was low (12%, 23%), with several undecided. Second, there were strong concentrations of pro-independence support in the regions heavily occupied by the Melanesian community – the Kanaks.


Much of that outcome comes from the long and detailed negotiations that were started after the dark days of the mid-1980s, and the massacre of Kanak nationalists on Ouvea island by French counter-insurgency troops — on 22 April 1988. One brief history of the conflict, by David Stanley in his New Caledonia Travel Guide, sets out the main facts, including the deaths of six police and the 19 Kanaks on Ouvea.

The episode was much about French politics, with a conservative government in Paris ordering a hard line: Persons newly-arrived from France were given the vote in an independence referendum in 1987. It was boycotted by the Kanaks as a minority in their homeland, being 40% of the population. That poll resulted in 98% for “non” – discredited from the day.

The exclusiveness and determined arrogance of it aggravated Kanak dissent and brought on a movement for revolt.

While much hard talk about holding onto the “colony” was injected into the election campaign for the French presidential election which happened to be following, that move did not succeed.

New Caledonia had missed out in the post-war era of decolonisation but in the late 20th Century there was little appetite for punitive wars against natives, and the conservative Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac, lost his bid, that time, to be President.

It was left to his successor as head of government, Michel Rocard from the Socialist Party to try to settle a dangerously conflict-ridden situation.


A part-resolution was achieved with the 1988 Matignon Accord, so called as it was produced at the Prime Minister’s headquarters in Paris, the Matignon Palace, at a round table of parties — including Kanak leadership, together with the French settlers, called Caldoches, and other European interests in the territory.

It commenced a large-scale economic development program that would benefit all sectors, provided amnesties for those who had been involved in the fighting, and for the future – moves toward a new, and fair referendum on independence.

A successor agreement, the Noumea Accord, ten years later, set-up self-government and a power-sharing arrangement. An elected New Caledonia government, though still with a French Commissioner, or governor on top, is responsible for all functions except for military and foreign policy, immigration, police and currency.

Conservative parties with a European French constituency have been elected with a small majority but under the agreements must share ministries with the pro-independence side.

The referendum on 4 November is to decide whether New Caledonia will continue under such an arrangement, with special status as a territory of France, or become an independent state.


The drawn-out talks among the parties, over the decades, have put a main focus on who gets to vote.

Kanak representatives have insisted on keeping French-born electors off the roll, at least if they have no long-standing or abiding interest in New Caledonia, and they have wanted strict rules on which persons born there, but living outside, should get to vote.

They have also demanded, and received concessions with some effect along the lines that a single vote on one day will not cut them off from independence forever and altogether.


The vote on 4th November, if it is a “non” to independence, might not be the end of it.

A new parliament, the governing Council will be elected in 2019, and under the Accords one-third of its members will be able to obtain a second referendum — with Kanaks expected to get enough seats to reach that number.

If it should be “no” again, they can then obtain a third referendum.

Beyond that, if it is “no” yet again, one more intervention by a French government might be called for, to try and get general agreement on an ongoing, but still French, form of self-government.

The rules on eligibility are set out very clearly on the official elections websites.

These make it plain how every vote counts, and show how half the battle has been fought in making the arrangements before voting is to start.

They have liberal provisions for late enrolment, and stress that voters need to show that their core “material and moral”, or strictly personal interests are in New Caledonia, with tests such as where parents were born, and ten years’ continuous residence during recent decades.

This very specific set of rulings establishing different lists for categories of eligible voters, will not deliver enough advantage to give it to the Kanak community.

However it is very far from the days of domination when many Kanaks were not enrolled but almost any French just-off-the-boat could get a vote.


Is this a triumph of peace-making?

The bringing together of parties, the power sharing, symbolised by the flying of two flags, Kanak and French, the buying of time, and the spending of money to improve the lives of Kanak communities, not least on education, have got the territory to the point of hoping for a peaceful and fair vote this year – 30 years on from the days of open conflict.

Yet the idea of freedom and national self-determination, the rights of first people, confidence-building, respect for culture, all count heavily, and these are powering support for “yes”.

New Caledonia already has its share of ongoing conflicts around identity, race, a share of wealth, and who should run the country – things are not really peaceful in the real world.


Trouble breaks out over environmental breaches committed by any of the three large nickel mining concerns on the big island – Grande Terre.

Kanak workers are represented by unions, so a community protest over pollution may become an industrial dispute.

Occupations, road-blocks and stand-offs with police, sometimes armed protests, can follow.

As crunch-time approaches, if thwarting of all-out independence looks likely, will resentments and anger buried under the blanket of soft persuasion resurface, reviving ideas of insurrection?

Can holding onto a Kanak cultural identity be guaranteed if they continue under a French system?

Add in concerns about whether a New Caledonia autonomy plan would be allowed to last forever, what with nationalistic and racist movements vying to get power back “home” in France.

What would happen under some future, hostile French government in Paris wanting to turn back the clock?

Much depends on how many people on all sides believe they are getting fair treatment, and might be convinced that the settlement on offer will work for them.


Consider these now-standard propositions on why the no vote is looking strong in polls.

Keeping prosperous. The French state has delivered on its development pledge, and together with benefits from mining and the public spending program has seen per capita Gross Domestic Product very close to that of Australia — a radical difference from other Pacific states. The wealth is not evenly shared between Europeans and Kanaks as communities but there is change and opportunity.

Keeping independent of corporate controls. Outside interests working one of the world’s main nickel deposits have exploited encouragement rules on tax, to drastically minimise what they pay. Political representatives across the board see this as distortion and a sign that a small newly independent state would have less chance than France of keeping giant mining corporations under control.

Keeping independent in the Pacific, especially against future domination by China. The French commitment to regional security is a strong card for the status quo. Emmanuel Macron got nods of agreement when he declared for a continued French military presence in the “Indo-Pacific axis”, or geopolitical sphere South of, and excluding China.

“Cette stratégie est essentielle si nous ne voulons pas que cette région tombe sous une nouvelle hégémonie”, he said – we have to block off a new hegemony.

Keeping the peace. Where decolonisation brought freedom, identity and respect to many countries there is anxiety, however misconceived, about the “African model” – too many cases of corruption, disorder and death, insurrection, economic ruin, disintegration of society.

The claim from right wing parties, “we don’t want to be another Papua New Guinea or a Vanuatu”, is a harsh rebuke for friendly neighbours, but refers to fears of a breaking-down of government services, street violence as in PNG towns, or poverty and flagging economic development.

“If you stay with the French you can be protected, maybe find a good job and do well in a nice country”, is the line.


The Presidential visit in May was accompanied by actual new improvements in relations.

A fresh round table, the G-10, Group of Ten, bringing together the parties, had long meetings with French ministers last November, allowing them to set the date for this year’s referendum.

The G10 was meeting again last month, faltering somewhat, as conservative members – viz the two New Caledonian members of the French Senate – declined to take part.

Macron has expressed the wish for New Caledonia to stay, but without pushing it.

“We will invest, and protect, and France will fully engage in Pacific strategies”, he promised.

Leaders from the Kanak political alliance, the FLNKS, (, responded positively, declaring him a change from all the previous French Presidents, and saying they accepted the spirit of his approach, for friendship in the future.

“He has truly come up with a geopolitical strategy that we agree with here completely, whether pro-independence or not”, said Roch Wamytan, head of the principal Kanak political group, and a participant in negotiations from the start in 1988.

Images: Flags together in Noumea – EU, France, Kanak; Noumea  harbour; FLNKS emblem

This article is published also in Independent Australia – ‘democracy, the environment, Australian identity’.