Kanak independence supporters wave flags of the Socialist Kanak National Liberation Front after the referendum on independence on the French South Pacific territory of New Caledonia in Noumea on October 4, 2020. Photo: AFP / Theo Rouby

SYDNEY – It was a vote where only one side turned up, and the result was entirely predictable: a 30-year effort to build agreement on the future of New Caledonia, a strategically placed French colony in the Pacific, has been thrown in the air.

Indigenous Melanesians calling themselves the Kanaks form some 40% of the territory’s 280,000 people, with the rest mostly French, some descended from early settlers after Paris annexed the island group in 1853 and opened a penal colony, others more recent arrivals including many displaced from other French colonies like Algeria.

Descendants of plantation and mine workers recruited from Java and Vietnam and Polynesian migrants from other French territories form other small communities.

In the 1980s, Kanak nationalism emerged after neighboring Melanesian colonies gained independence – Fiji in 1970, Papua New Guinea in 1975, the Solomons in 1978 and Vanuatu in 1980.

Agitation for an independent “Kanaky” flared into violence, culminating in Kanak militants taking hostage French gendarmes, rescued amid great bloodshed by French special forces. That led to two accords between the Kanaks, the settlers and Paris aimed at redressing social and economic imbalances between the races and preparing for a decision on the future. 

The referendum on December 12 was supposed to be the final step in popular consultation, following two earlier plebiscites that saw support for the territory’s independence inch closer towards a majority.

It was being closely watched in regional security circles, antennae already raised by last month’s rioting in the nearby Solomon Islands sparked by a dispute over its government’s recent turn from Taiwan to mainland China. Was another fragile Pacific mini-state about to be launched, open to Beijing’s influence?

The answer seems far in the future now.

The process was disrupted by the arrival of the Delta variant of Covid-19 in early September, after New Caledonia had isolated itself from previous waves of the pandemic. It quickly infected more than 12,000 people and caused 280 deaths over the following two months, about 60% among Kanaks and other Pacific islanders.

French Minister of the Overseas Territories Sebastien Lecornu on an official visit to New Caledonia with the French ‘tricolor’ flag in the background on October 24, 2020. Photo: AFP / Theo Rouby / Hans Lucas

Covid disrupts campaigns

Many Kanak communities were plunged into traditional mourning rituals that can take up to a year.

In addition, a lockdown on public assemblies and movement to fight the spread of the virus restricted campaigns by Kanak parties, which typically rely on village meetings and tours by leaders – unlike the French loyalist groups who could still use online campaigning to reach their supporters among the white settlers and other migrants concentrated around the capital Noumea. 

“It is simply impossible for us to campaign and organize this referendum because of all the mourning that we are undergoing,” Johanyto Wamytan, a Kanak and pro-independence activist for the Union Calédonienne party told the Guardian Australia.

“The custom of mourning is really crucial for the Kanak people. It is a time when the chiefs of clans can meet for several weeks to renew alliances and keep the custom alive. The tomb is closed and finished only after a year. I lost a very important cousin during this crisis. We could not do the custom. When I go to people to talk about the referendum as a politician, they refuse to receive me.”

The Kanak parties appealed to French President Emanuel Macron to postpone the referendum until October next year, reminding him of his earlier pledge the vote would not be held between this October and next September, to avoid it being colored by the French presidential election due next April and national assembly elections in June. 

Advised by his ambitious minister for overseas territories, Sébastien Lecornu, Macron refused. A last-minute court appeal for delay also failed. So the Kanak coalition called a boycott of the referendum.

In the event, only 43.9% of the 185,000 eligible voters cast their ballot on the question of whether they supported independence, as against nearly 86% in the previous referendum. Out of those that voted, 96.5% said non to independence.

“France is more beautiful because New Caledonia decided to stay,” said Macron. His center-right Republican rival for the presidency, Valerie Pecresse, hailed a “massive choice” to stay within France. The emerging far-right candidate Eric Zemmour said the decision was final.

Local opponents of independence were also jubilant. “Tonight we are French and we will stay that way. It’s no longer negotiable,” said Sonia Backès, president of the Southern Province region and a fervent loyalist.

French President Emmanuel Macron hailed the result of the boycotted vote. Photo: AFP

It’s not over yet

She and some others regard the accords as now scrapped, allowing the electoral rolls to be thrown open to more recent arrivals and ending special economic support for Kanak-dominated regions.

Not so fast, say many experts on New Caledonia’s politics. “This isn’t over, and people who are saying it’s over are misreading the strength of the boycott,” said Nic Maclellan, a veteran commentator on Pacific affairs in Australia.

Not only did near all Kanaks heed their parties’ call for “non-participation,” they did so peacefully without any attempt to disrupt polling. Paris had sent 2,000 extra gendarmes and 30 armored cars to maintain security – they were not needed.

Mathias Chauchat, a professor of public law at the University of New Caledonia in Noumea, said the conduct of the referendum had ended 30 years of dialogue in “an enormous mess” and showed a “moral fault” by the French state.

“The independence supporters have dominated the three ballots psychologically,” Chauchat said. “The first because no one was expecting them, the second because they showed that independence was possible and that a common destiny was starting to take hold, and the third because they have shown that without them, nothing is possible in New Caledonia.”

Chauchat also pointed out that the restrictions on the electoral roll to Kanaks and long-established settlers, plus the internal economic weighting to Kanak regions, were far from defunct, and remained embedded in the French constitution, requiring a 60% majority in the national assembly to change.

Under the United Nations-approved process of decolonization, it was the colonized people who had the right of self-determination, the law professor said. The Kanaks had agreed to share this right with those in the territory for 20 years before 2015, and certain others. This was the “matrix” of the Caledonian people. 

To open the vote to all the residents of New Caledonia would be “recolonization” and definitively end the Kanak dream of independence, Chauchat said. “In essence, opening the electoral roll would give power to the whites. It would revert to the colony like before, with the French in power and the Kanaks like an aboriginal minority.

“They would be left with their customs on the margin, all the while saying that their identity was recognized. It would be a system of apartheid that doesn’t say its name.

“The situation is explosive because the Kanaks would never accept this recolonization,” Chauchat added. “We are on a powder-keg. It needs only a spark for it to explode.” 

Members of the 16-nation Pacific Islands Forum are greeted by traditional dancers in grass skirts at the meeting’s opening in the Micronesian capital Palikir on September 8, 2016. The Forum has spoken out against the recent vote in New Caledonia. Photo: AFP / Bill Jaynes

Fingers pointed at Paris

Adrian Muckle, a Pacific historian at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, says unfreezing the electoral roll would shore up the loyalist parties, who have been “bridling” under a local New Caledonia government led by pro-independence figures since early this year.  

“To my mind, there is no doubt that this was one of the factors in the determination to proceed as soon as possible with this third referendum and to ignore the requests for its postponement,” Muckle said, agreeing that any such attempt would meet strong opposition.

On Tuesday, the seven pro-independence groups issued a statement saying the decision not to delay the referendum had dishonored France and disrupted it. “The path of dialogue had been broken by the stubbornness of the French government, which is unable to reconcile its geostrategic interests in the Pacific with its obligation to decolonize New Caledonia,” they said.

New Caledonia’s regional neighbors have dismissed the referendum result. The Melanesian Spearhead Group – representing Papua New Guinea, the Solomons, Vanuatu and Fiji – said in a statement it agreed the results were “null and void due to the ‘non-participation’ of the indigenous people of Kanaky.”

The Pacific Islands Forum – a wider regional grouping that includes Melanesian, Polynesian and Micronesian states as well as Australia and New Zealand – said the boycott needed to be taken “into the contextual consideration and analysis of the result” and that “civic participation was an integral component of any democracy and critical to the interpretation and implications of Sunday’s poll.” 

Canberra and Wellington seem to be merging into this diplomatic rebuff – on Australia’s part no doubt because after this year’s submarine debacle, it has no influence with Macron.

The Kanak parties said although Paris now wanted to begin an 18-month consultation process about the constitutional future, they would talk until a new French administration is formed after next year’s elections.

With Macron now fighting for re-election from the center against the right and far-right, it seems unlikely that electoral considerations will allow much flexibility in thinking about New Caledonia’s future. Only Jean-Luc Melenchon, the left-wing outside chance in the presidential race, has declared the result invalid.

“By pushing through the referendum, Macron made a serious error and returned the territory to the rifts of the late 1980s,” Melenchon said. “We are now in what is being considered a conflict zone by the Anglo-Saxon alliance of New Zealanders, Americans and Australians.

“If the French government thought it could get rid of a problem by being more present and quicker in the Cold War it wants to have with China, it made a big mistake.”

Meanwhile, those worried about an independent Kanaky becoming a Chinese foothold could do well to study what kind of independence is being proposed by the Kanaks.

Chauchat, the law professor in Noumea, is close to the Union Calédonienne. The model it is leaning to, he says, is the “free association” link of the Cook Islands to New Zealand, whereby Wellington looks after the islands’ defense and conducts its foreign policy in consultation with the Cook Islands government.

New Caledonia is a long way from its colonial master France. Map: Facebook

Partnerships or associations

The small nation has a membership of many international agencies, though not a UN seat. Other small Pacific states, like Palau, have free association pacts with the United States that do allow a UN vote.

Muckle, in Wellington, said another Kanak party, UNI-Palika, had in its manifesto the idea of a partnership or association with France. 

“They have sought to discuss in advance of the final referendum what that might look like in more detail, but Paris and ‘loyalists’ have actively refused to engage, suggesting that such discussions could only take place after a vote for independence and that nothing can be discussed until then,” Muckle said. 

“Their concern, I think, is that any fleshed-out ideas on independence-in-association might make a ‘yes’ vote more attractive. However, that is not at all how independence-association agreements elsewhere in the Pacific have been conducted. There’s not, however, a great deal of public awareness in New Caledonia about those other examples.”

Maclellan, the commentator in Australia, predicts a long goodbye to the French military presence in the region, whatever the status of New Caledonia. Even after the bitter Algerian war that ended with independence in 1962, he points out, France gained the right to keep a number of bases and conducted 13 nuclear tests before moving its program to Polynesia.

The rich nickel resources of New Caledonia, often cited as prized by the Chinese for the electric-vehicle era, have already been flowing to China since 2016, when a smelter in Townsville, Australia, went broke.

The then loyalist-run New Caledonia administration authorized ore exports, opposed by Kanak parties, who wanted to boost the territory’s smelting capacity and export metal instead.