By Catherine Wilson
Canberra, Australia, May 22 (IPS) – The political future of New Caledonia, a French South Pacific Island territory of 273,000 people, is a profound question mark as a referendum on independence rapidly approaches next year. Equally, how the newly elected French Government, led by Emmanuel Macron, will perform as arbiter of the challenging process in the months ahead is a relative unknown.Independence aspirations have risen in New Caledonia since the 1980s when violent unrest signalled growing agitation for political change by the indigenous Kanak peoples who comprise about 40 percent of the population. The territory was reinstated on the United Nations Decolonization List in 1986.
Michael Forrest, Foreign Affairs Secretary for FLNKS (Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front), proclaimed in a November interview with the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) that Kanaks “want to be free and integrated into the political, social and economic environment of the Pacific.”
“It will be a very complex issue to deal with, but I think that Macron will respect the result of the referendum, whatever it is,” Paul Soyez, Adjunct Professor at France’s Paris IV-Sorbonne University and researcher on international relations at the University of Melbourne, Australia, told IPS.
Thirty-nine-year-old Macron, a former investment banker and Economic Minister in the previous socialist government led by François Hollande, won the second round of voting in presidential elections on May 7 against Marine Le Pen, former leader of the National Front. He galvanised popular support for his centrist independent movement, En Marche! (On the Move!), with a strident call for national revival through economic reform and growth, social unity and strengthening of the European Union.
“Macron will maintain the French state’s conciliatory approach to the referendum, like left-wing politicians have done since 1988. His aim will be to secure a calm referendum for the sake of New Caledonia, and for his own sake. I think that his methods can help to avoid violent tensions in New Caledonia next year,” Soyez predicts.
Yet the territory’s political future was not a key campaign issue as a pressing domestic agenda, including high unemployment and concerns about terrorism and immigration, drove candidates’ rhetoric.
And none of the presidential candidates ventured to New Caledonia during campaigning, where voter abstention of 51 percent was very high. But, after the territory’s second polling, Macron secured a slight majority of 52.57 percent against Le Pen’s 47.43 percent. In Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia, 80 percent and 58 percent of voters respectively chose Macron, giving him an overall lead across the French Pacific.
French politicians across the ideological spectrum, including socialist Francois Hollande, centre-right Republican François Fillon, and far-right Marine Le Pen, have stated publicly that, while respecting the referendum process, they prefer that New Caledonia remains part of France.
Less than 1 percent of France’s population lives in the Pacific territories, but the state’s reluctance to severe ties with its overseas territories is due to ideological and strategic factors, according to Soyez.
“Firstly, France constitutes an ‘indivisible’ republic. Therefore, as long as the majority of the population want to remain French, France has the duty to maintain its sovereignty. This is extremely important in the French psyche,” he explained.
As well, “French overseas territories enable France to project its military force all around the world, which is very important when France is leading several operations. France’s presence in the South Pacific provides Paris with the second largest Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the world, many natural resources and influence in its regional institutions.”
Macron also shared his hope for the status quo in an interview with Noumea’s media in May, while advocating that the causes of local grievances be tackled, such as unemployment of 14.9 percent. But Soyez believes that “Macron, like a majority of French citizens, believes that a solution can be found between the status quo and independence, if the local communities want to find a way to compromise.”
While the new President has a long list of domestic issues to progress, disputes over the referendum electoral roll demand resolution as well.
“One of the major challenges for us is to include what we estimate to be between 20,000-25,000 local indigenous Kanak people who are not on the referendum electoral list. This list is the responsibility of the French Government,” Forrest emphasised to local media.
An estimated 84,000 Kanaks and 71,000 non-indigenous citizens are entitled to vote in the referendum.
New Caledonia’s first referendum on Independence was held in 1987, but a major Kanak boycott resulted in a pro-France outcome. Further negotiations with France led to a second referendum being provided for in the 1998 Noumea Accord, which also pledged to address indigenous disparity and the partial devolution of powers.
Two decades later the Kanak population still struggles with hardship and low development outcomes. New Caledonia has a high GDP per capita in the region of 39,391 dollars. But research reveals that the employment gap has changed little since the end of the 1990s. In 2009, the unemployment rate for Kanaks was still high at 26 percent, compared to 7 percent for non-Kanaks.
Anger by indigenous youths during clashes with police near Noumea in recent months is a sign that inequality remains a burning issue.
Yet an opinion poll conducted by New Caledonian television in April points to a loyalist lead with 54 percent of eligible referendum voters opposed to independence, about 25 percent in favour and 21 percent undecided. Concerns about a French ‘exit’ include a possible decline in the economy and living standards. The French government currently injects about 1.1 billion dollars into the island territory every year to fund education and development, social security and the public service.
Another crucial hurdle for the pro-independence lobby is that, after decades of debate about self-determination, there remains a lack of consensus about a vision of nationhood which satisfies people on all sides of the political divide.
By Catherine Wilson