Voters went to the polls on Sunday in New Caledonia for the third and final referendum on the independence of the Pacific territory under French control.
The independence movement has seen gradual gains in the two previous referendums on independence from France, which took place in 2018 and 2020.
But the decision of its main parties to boycott the final referendum fueled discord ahead of the December 12 vote.
“We asked our activists and members not to hinder this election so that it can take place and, thus, to show that we are not opposed to the democratic system”, declared Victor Tutugoro, spokesperson for the Front de Kanak National Liberation and Socialist New Caledonia (FLNKS), a member of the broad separatist coalition known as the Strategic Committee for Independence, told Al Jazeera.
“Even if France has for many decades encouraged the immigration of a population mainly from Europe and the Pacific territories under its supervision to make the Kanak people a minority in their country.
New Caledonia, a former French colony and now an overseas territory with enhanced autonomy, is located in the South Pacific, nearly three hours’ flight east of Australia.
He was granted the right to three referendums on his future political status in the Noumea Accord of 1998, an agreement between French and territorial leaders that aimed to address the political and socio-economic grievances of indigenous islanders, known as the Kanak, and to give New Caledonia more autonomy.
Pro-France supporters narrowly won the first and second referendums, winning 56.7% and 53.3% of the vote respectively.
Ahead of the third vote, Philippe Gomès, leader of the loyalist Calédonie Ensemble party, said in an interview with the local newspaper Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes: “The real debate is: how to revisit the link with France? New Caledonians are tired of living with the exercise of the right to self-determination. We must create together – separatists and non-separatists – the conditions for a New Caledonia liberated from consultations on independence.
But the decision of the French government to hold the last referendum this month to avoid French presidential and legislative elections next year has angered the pro-independence parties. Supported by Pacific island nations, they called for the vote to be held at the end of next year.
Independence parties say the sharp increase in COVID-19 cases this year, culminating with containment restrictions in September and October, and the time needed for traditional rites of mourning the dead within the Kanak community, has severely crippled their ability to prepare. for the vote.
France has deployed a reinforced security contingent to oversee the referendum. New Caledonia has a population of around 271,407, of whom 41.2 percent are Kanaks and 24.1 percent are of European, mostly French, descent. Both native-born and long-term residents are eligible to vote, but the turnout is now expected to be well below the 85.6% who voted last year.
“It is obvious that a self-determination referendum with a low turnout will not have the strength expected,” Caroline Gravelat, lecturer in public law at the University of New Caledonia in the capital, told Al Jazeera. Noumea.
“The choice of the FLNKS not to participate in the vote is a real political problem, but it does not affect the meaning of the result because the gap between the” yes “and” no “votes would probably not have narrowed to the point that The ‘yes’ side would have won, ”she said.
However, Tutugoro is clear that his party will not accept a pro-loyalist result.
“We have already announced that we will not recognize this result and will publicly challenge it at the French national level, at the Pacific regional level and at the international level. We have already launched an international information campaign… We underline that politically this vote for the decolonization of our country is worth nothing, since we, the Kanak people, the first people, colonized and bearer of the demand for independence, are absent ” , did he declare. told Al Jazeera.
“What credibility could she have without our participation?
The Kanaks’ experience of socio-economic marginalization, land dispossession and deprivation of civil rights sparked violent civil unrest in New Caledonia in the 1980s.
In a first referendum held in 1987, before the Noumea Accord, supporters of independence, unhappy with the right to vote granted to recent residents of the territory, also carried out a boycott. The overwhelming victory of the pro-France gave rise to violent protests, with a reconciliation between the French and territorial leaders culminating with the Matignon Accord of 1988, aimed at rectifying inequalities and, 10 years later, the Accord de Nouméa, which promoted the vision of “shared sovereignty”.
Despite this, indigenous islanders still suffer from high levels of poverty compared to those of European descent and while New Caledonia has the highest gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in the Melanesian region at $ 37,448, Kanak unemployment is estimated at around 38%.
In February, pro-independence parties strengthened their position in the territorial government by securing six of the 11 executive posts, the territory’s local parliament. They are provocative in their call for self-determination, even if moderate supporters are ready to consider a form of “independence in partnership with France”.
Loyalists, including the Caledonia Together and Le Rassemblement parties, argue that maintaining ties with France will ensure economic and geopolitical security.
“What worries the anti-independence parties is independence itself. They consider that it is by remaining within the French entity that New Caledonia will be able to retain the greatest “independence” or the greatest autonomy and freedom. In this sense, France is a protective power against foreign interference, ”said Gravelat.
The European power also injects 1.5 billion euros (1.69 billion dollars) into the territory each year, which it will withdraw in the event of statehood.
Loyalists believe an early “no” result would boost confidence in the economy, while France warned that a “yes” result would trigger an uncertain future and create an exodus of 10,000 to 24,000 people from New York. -Caledonia.
French President Emmanuel Macron also wants New Caledonia to remain in the fold because it plays an important role in the scope of maritime power and geopolitical influence of France in the Indo-Pacific, provides access to significant nickel reserves and contributes to the size of its exclusive economic zone.
Either way, Sunday’s vote will mark the end of the Noumea Accord and the start of discussions on a new agreement on relations between France and New Caledonia. Another plebiscite for citizens to approve the new deal, overseen by the French government inaugurated after next year’s elections, is expected to take place by June 2023.
“The post-referendum period remains open and France will experience a strong electoral period following the renewal of the presidency of the republic and of its national assembly. We will remain attentive and observe the evolution of this situation, ”said Tutugoro.
Both sides of the political divide continue to promote the idea of a unified future.
“The ‘common destiny’ and ‘shared future’ is not an ideal in New Caledonia, they are a necessity,” said Gravelat.
But Tutugoro emphasizes that any unified future “requires a fight against social inequalities in this country; against poverty and the ever-widening gap with the richest, against injustice and tax evasion, against the plunder of resources, against academic failure … We have constantly indicated that we had the ambition to offer to all citizens the opportunity to build together a future that is based on social justice.
The fractured engagement in Sunday’s referendum is an indication of the deep divisions within Caledonian society and the risk of frustration and discontent in the months to come.