9 Nov 2018

Where to next for New Caledonia?

3:34 pm on 9 November 2018

New Caledonia's political leadership is invited to Paris next month to discuss where to next after the victory of the anti-independence camp in last Sunday's referendum.

A start was made in Noumea on Monday when the French prime minister arrived just one hour after the official result was proclaimed.

Just over 56 percent decided to stay with France in the historic vote with a record 81 percent turnout.

In his post-referendum televised address to New Caledonians, the French President Emmanuel Macron described the rejection of independence as a sign of pride to be French.

And he pointed out that the result was a sign of confidence in the French republic, in its future and its values.

French President Emmanuel Macron on New Caledonia television as unofficial results confirm rejection of independence from France

French President Emmanuel Macron on New Caledonia television as unofficial results confirm rejection of independence from France Photo: RNZ

But according to the French newspaper Le Canard enchaîné, Mr Macron let privately slip that the referendum result was more of a sign of alarm, saying some might interpret it as a 'yes, maybe' or a 'yes, soon".

Kanaks have also been brimming with pride, in part because opinion polls had suggested that up to 75 percent of voters would reject independence.

The better than expected result has raised expectations they could edge even closer to parity.

The Kanak minority's fervour has been visible across New Caledonia, with FLNKS flags being flown hundreds of times more frequently than the tricolore of the majority.

Patricia Goa at the government of the Northern Province in New Caledonia

Patricia Goa at the government of the Northern Province in New Caledonia Photo: RNZ Walter Zweifel

Patricia Goa, a local government advisor in Kone, in the far north, said times had changed.

"The debate is not about material things. The debate is really what we want for our people, for the country. We are talking about sovereignty, about freedom", she said.

Edouard Philippe also appeared on local television after a whirlwind round of talks with all political parties the day after the vote.

While hailing the referendum process as a win for democracy he thought the campaign and debate had focussed too much on institutional questions.

Referring to the Noumea Accord as the roadmap for the decolonisation, he pointed to its economic and social aspects.

French prime minister Edouard Philippe flanked by overseas minister Annick Girardin and the High Commissioner to New Caledonia Thierry Lataste

French prime minister Edouard Philippe flanked by overseas minister Annick Girardin and the High Commissioner to New Caledonia Thierry Lataste Photo: RNZ Walter Zweifel

Efforts had been made by France to boost economic development in the mainly Kanak north by facilitating the establishment of a nickel smelter to draw from the island's mineral wealth.

But for Professor Mathias Chauchat of the University of New Caledonia, the French economic model still relies on bringing in people from France while Paris is persisting with paying its public servants 73 percent more than in France.

"The Caledonians also benefit from this policy. Owners of land in the south can get rich without working hard. They are encouraged by tax exemptions. And who are the losers? The losers in this economy are the Kanaks affected by the double penalty of low wages and high prices", he said.

Professor Chauchat said independence was a difficult option if there was no change in the way the economy was structured.

Professor Mathias Chauchat of the University of New Caledonia

Professor Mathias Chauchat of the University of New Caledonia Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Walter Zweifel

Those well-off and opposed to independence warned of independence and were quick to point to their Melanesian neighbours.

A phrase going around has been that 'independence equals chaos' or 'independence equals misery'.

New Caledonia is richer than most French departments but the gap between the rich and poor is much larger than in France.

The referendum result has left the winners subdued and the losers satisfied.

Talkback had people describe the result as a victory.

New Caledonia's Congress building in Noumea's Boulevard Vauban

New Caledonia's Congress building in Noumea's Boulevard Vauban Photo: RNZ Walter Zweifel

A day after the vote Edouard Philippe announced that the signatories to the Noumea Accord would meet in Paris in mid-December for discussions on the way forward.

The anti-independence side is split on how to proceed.

Proposed options include scrapping the Noumea Accord provisions for more referendums or to defer a further such vote by 15 to 25 years.

The pro-independence side insists that the Accord provisions be not tampered with, being aware that this would involve a cumbersome process of changing the French constitution.

Railati Bilo, a voter in New Caledonia's independence referendum

Railati Bilo, a voter in New Caledonia's independence referendum Photo: RNZ Walter Zweifel

Railatu Bilo, a young voter sporting a Fijian sulu, said he doubted the anti-independence camp could stave off the additional referendums which are still possible.

"I have talked to some of my friends and I told them even if at a second referendum we have a no and a third one. At the end of the day no-one will be a winner. You know why? Because the Accord of Noumea says at the end most of the parties have to sit again and talk. So noone will sort of be the winner. I believe we are becoming the winner", he said.

The way forward is complicated and akin to trying to square a circle.

A majority at the ballot box is against independence while the Kanak minority has an internationally recognised right to self-rule.

Much of what is likely to be discussed in Paris will be on hold until May when fresh elections are held to choose a new Congress for the next five years.

The new Congress is the only institution that has the power to call for another referendum.

And a third of members will suffice to do that.

Noumea

Noumea Photo: RNZ Walter Zweifel

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