New Caledonia says “no” to independence

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NOUMÉA, New Caledonia – New Caledonia, a small group of islands in the South Pacific, will not mark the new year by becoming the youngest country in the world.

In a referendum held on Sunday, voters overwhelmingly rejected independence, 96% having chosen to stay in France, according to provisional results released Sunday evening by the French high commission in New Caledonia.

But while the referendum failed, prompting those who voted “no” to fly the French tricolor in the capital, Noumea, the result does not signal the end of New Caledonia’s dreams of sovereignty.

“We are continuing our path of emancipation,” Louis Mapou, President of New Caledonia, said in an interview, brushing aside any referendum results. “This is what is essential.”

Mr. Mapou is the first independence leader to hold the official title of president in New Caledonia and the first to come from the indigenous Kanak community which represents around 40 percent of the population. It refers to the territory as to a country. (He’s also the kind of president who drives around in a Subaru Forester.)

Much of the Kanak pro-independence bloc boycotted Sunday’s vote after its call for a postponement was rejected, raising fears that the referendum’s legitimacy would be undermined by non-participation. French President Emmanuel Macron, who has made strengthening the country’s international profile a cornerstone of his campaign for his re-election in April, declined a postponement.

“France is more beautiful because New Caledonia has chosen to stay,” said Mr. Macron said in a televised statement on Sunday.

With its distant island outposts, such as French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna in the Pacific Ocean, but also Mayotte and Reunion in the Indian Ocean, France has one of the largest maritime profiles in the world. But the recent collapse of a French submarine deal with Australia, following the arrival of the United States and Britain, has embarrassed Paris. Mr. Macron had positioned France as a bulwark against China, which is expanding its influence in the Indo-Pacific.

“Woe to the little ones, woe to the isolated, woe to those who will be influenced and attacked by hegemonic powers who will come to seek their fish, their technology, their economic resources,” he said in a speech in July in French Polynesia.

Although the “hegemonic power” remained unnamed, the meaning was clear: China.

Sunday’s vote was the third of three independence referendums promised by Paris after years of conflict in New Caledonia in the 1980s, an uprising known simply as “the events.” In the second vote last year, 47% chose independence, up from 43% in the first referendum in 2018.

On Sunday at 5 p.m., voter turnout had fallen to 42%, against 79% in the 2020 referendum. As the lines of voters left the polling stations in the French loyalist neighborhoods of Nouméa and its surroundings on Sunday morning, they were practically empty in the independence strongholds.

Kanak leaders had urged the French government to postpone Sunday’s referendum until next year because a late-breaking wave of coronavirus disproportionately affected their people. The long traditions of Kanak mourning, they said, made political campaigning impossible.

“The French state lacks respect for the relationship between the living and the dead Kanak,” said Daniel Goa, leader of a pro-independence political party. “The process of decolonization advances without respecting the people who are to be decolonized. “

The history of the empire is one of centuries of subjugation, but few places remain in the world where colonization continues. After annexing New Caledonia in 1853 and establishing a penal colony, the French forced the Kanaks to leave their fertile tribal lands and settle on reservations. The French brutally crush the Kanak’s efforts to push them back.

With the discovery of nickel, the French administration brought in workers from Asia and other parts of the Pacific to work in the mines, which remain the main economic engine of the territory. Conflict and foreign disease have claimed the lives of the Kanaks, whose population has fallen by about half in three quarters of a century. Today, with an overcrowded influx of French people in Noumea – civil servants can earn double wages back to France – Kanaks are a minority in their home country.

To prepare for Sunday’s referendum, thousands of French security forces descended on the territory of 270,000 people. The aftermath of the last referendum escalated into violence, with young Kanaks setting fire to nickel mining facilities and blocking major thoroughfares.

“Half the country is for independence and the other half against,” Charles Wea, presidential adviser, said before the vote count. “We have to rebuild a new social contract. Otherwise, we will always be divided.

New Caledonia is the only place in Melanesia, an arc of islands stretching from Papua New Guinea to Fiji, which remains under colonial control. Neighboring Vanuatu gained independence in 1980, the Solomon Islands two years earlier.

French loyalists argue that New Caledonia’s privileged economic position – its per capita GDP would rank it among the top 20 richest countries if it were considered a country – is due to its status as French territory. Subsidies from Paris are filling New Caledonia’s coffers, and the territory’s wealth has doubled over the past three decades.

If New Caledonia eventually became independent, the territory would trade the geopolitical influence of France for that of China, which extended its reach to Melanesia, say French worshipers. Deadly riots rocked the Solomon Islands last month, with the prime minister blaming the violence on the transfer of diplomatic allegiance to China from Taiwan, the autonomous democracy that is Beijing’s political rival.

“When you look at France and China, it’s totally different when it comes to human rights,” said Christopher Gygès, an anti-independence politician who is also Minister of the Economy, Foreign Trade and of the Energy of New Caledonia. “France’s presence will protect us from China’s appetite and efforts to take control of the region.

Mr. Mapou, the president, left open the possibility of an independent New Caledonia entrusting its defense to France, allowing Paris to retain a regional stronghold.

“We can balance,” he said. “We can be in the Pacific, defend our interests and maintain a link with France and Europe through history and culture.

Attracted by the climate and the comfort of life in New Caledonia, the metro population, as newcomers to France are called, has grown significantly in a generation. Much of the center of Noumea is a white city of baguettes and quiet games of pétanque. The wealth of New Caledonia is concentrated in the Southern Province, where Nouméa is located. Even the New Caledonian government gets its offices from the province, which is ruled by a white leader.

Despite New Caledonia’s prosperity, income disparities are widening. The Kanaks constitute the vast majority of the poor, unemployed and imprisoned in the territory. Despite the government’s efforts to help Kanaks pursue higher education in France, there are few Kanak doctors, lawyers and engineers.

In a dilapidated social housing sprawl in Magenta, a district of Noumea, Jeremy Hnalep, 25, said he got little hope from politics. The halls of buildings reeked of urine; clumps of young people circulated cannabis, illegal in New Caledonia.

“The only choice is to live outside the system because the system will not change even if there is independence,” Hnalep said.

Kanak politicians estimate that Kanak youth unemployment exceeds 40%.

In villages outside of Noumea, the colorful Kanaky flag, as the Kanaks call the land, flies over market stalls and fishing boats. It flies over funerals and weddings, Catholic holidays and labor strikes. The French flag is rarely seen.

Yet on the eve of the vote, even as she recognized the colonial burden of the Kanaks, Anne-Marie Kourévi, the 81-year-old wife of a Kanak tribal chief in southern New Caledonia, said that she would vote “yes”.

“I am French, she says, and I have been for over 80 years.”

Aurélien Breeden contributed to the report from Paris.

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