Ancient Islands, Newest Country? New Caledonia Prepares to Vote on Independence
As the Pacific sun rises, shades of orange bathe an island port featuring both palm and pine trees. A cathedral that might not look out of place in Latin America stands a mere fifteen-minute drive from the towering curved pavilions of an indigenous cultural center.
Inland, pale grey ground-dwelling birds with brilliant crests are performing distinctive morning duets reminiscent of a dog’s bark. These birds, known as kagus, are found in the wild only on this island. Locals call them “ghosts of the forest.”
Far from the city, ranchers on horseback drive cattle over the rolling scrubland of the bush. In a few weeks’ time, one of the world’s oldest species of flowering plants will be in bloom in the uplands, just as it has been since the age of dinosaurs. Nickel ore is extracted from the earth at a handful of sprawling pits scattered across the island, while haze rises from a smelter on the port’s western shore.
This is New Caledonia.
About a thousand miles east of Australia, the archipelago has been home to endemic flora and fauna for tens of millions of years, inhabited by humans for over three millennia, and part of France since 1853. And following a referendum to be held later this year, it might just become the world’s newest independent country.
But maybe not so fast.
The exact date of the referendum, as well as the wording of the ballot question, is still to be decided. Only last November did pro- and anti-independence parties agree on who would be allowed to vote.
“People are confused, and things are in flux,” said Walter Zweifel, a journalist who covers New Caledonia for Radio New Zealand, in an interview with The Politic.
Some say a vote for independence would mark the end of a long-overdue decolonization process. Others insist it would begin a period of profound uncertainty.
But what is certain is that a referendum will take place by November. The vote is mandated by the archipelago’s governing charter, the Nouméa Accord, which was itself approved by referendum in 1998. Named after New Caledonia’s capital and main city, the Accord granted the islands a unique autonomous status within France and set out a roadmap for the gradual transfer of powers away from Paris.
Twenty years later, New Caledonia’s 270,000 inhabitants live in relative harmony. Most are either Kanaks, the islands’ native Melanesian people, or Europeans, who began arriving after France established a penal colony on the largest island in the mid-19th century.
But few New Caledonians of any ethnic group have fond memories of the time before the Nouméa Accord.
During the first few decades of colonial rule, disease, wars, and coerced indentured servitude decimated the native population.
“When the French came in, they just ran the place, and the locals were almost—not slaves, but there were restrictions on where the Kanaks could move,” Zweifel said.
Roch Wamytan signed the Nouméa Accord in 1998 as the then-leader of the major pro-independence force, the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS). When he spoke with The Politic about the Kanak people’s history, he did not mince words.
“We lived under triumphant colonialism,” Wamytan said. “The Kanak people were under the thumb of the French government.”
That began to change, he explained, with the global wave of decolonization that followed World War II. Kanaks gained French citizenship and voting rights. Even the word “Kanak” (then spelled “Canaque”), previously a derogatory term for Melanesians, became a point of pride among New Caledonia’s native inhabitants.
Despite this progress, New Caledonia remained far from independent well into the 1980s, unlike nearby sovereign states like Vanuatu and Fiji. Frustrated with the slow pace of change and what it viewed as French attempts to sabotage moves toward autonomy, the FLNKS took up arms. The resulting multi-year insurgency included a hostage crisis in a cave that saw 19 separatist militants and two French gendarmes killed.
Denise Fisher, who served as Australian Consul-General in Nouméa between 2001 and 2004 and is now a fellow at the Australian National University, explained in an email to The Politic that both sides wish to hold this year’s referendum ahead of the November deadline.
Many on the islands remember the separatist boycott of local elections in November 1984, complete with the destruction of ballot boxes, as the beginning of the violence.
“The fact that this is considered relevant highlights the awareness by all of the risks that the poll process may reignite deep sensitivities,” Fisher wrote.
New Caledonia has held an independence referendum before—in 1987, amidst the insurgency. But France and the FLNKS failed to agree on the eligible electorate, and most Kanaks boycotted the vote. The 98 percent result in favor of staying with France did little to resolve the ongoing conflict.
The violence did subside after separatists and loyalists signed a collection of agreements in Paris the following year. But with the Nouméa Accord now allowing up to three referendums on independence between 2018 and 2022 and calling for additional talks if each produces a pro-France result, many are concerned that old tensions could boil over.
“We really don’t want a war again,” Nouméa-based freelance journalist Coralie Cochin told The Politic in an interview.
Zweifel argued that the situation today is meaningfully different from the 1980s.
“The simple polarization doesn’t work,” he said. “You can find Kanaks who are for remaining with France, Kanaks who are against staying with France, just as you find [European] settlers there who would quite like to create some form of independent country of New Caledonia.”
The legacy of a darker past still lingers.
“Inequality—above all ethnic inequality—is the most important issue that divides the people,” wrote Mathias Chauchat, a professor of public law at the University of New Caledonia, in an email to The Politic. Kanaks are still, on average, significantly less wealthy than their European counterparts and more likely to not finish school or to be unemployed.
“Eighty-five percent of the incarcerated population is Kanak youth,” separatist leader Wamytan said. (Kanaks make up about 40 percent of New Caledonia’s population.) “If we were independent, we would not have witnessed this rise in criminality. We would have put in place reforms taking into account the social and cultural context.”
Pastor and pro-independence activist Bilo Railati told The Politic in an interview, “We fight against an unequal system and especially against marginalization of the Kanak people.”
Philippe Blaise, an anti-independence deputy in New Caledonia’s Congress, sees that fight differently. “The [separatist] parties have a project of society that is based on ethnicity,” he said in an interview with The Politic. “They want to give Kanaks specific rights according to their customary status.”
As Blaise explained, the largest faction within the FLNKS has proposed expanding the powers of the Customary Senate, a New Caledonia-wide assembly representing traditional Kanak chiefs.
Not all Kanaks support such a change, but Blaise (who is white) is adamantly opposed.
“I was born in New Caledonia,” he said. “My family has been there for five generations. We consider this place our home.”
Blaise explained, “Today, as French citizens, [Kanaks and non-Kanaks] have the same rights. We obey the same laws. We cannot build this country with discrimination—you can’t solve the injustices of the past with injustices in the future.”
Of course, the separatists would have to win the referendum first. A single public opinion poll, from last April, showed the anti-independence camp leading 54 percent to 24 percent. There are still several months to go and a large undecided bloc, but Chauchat was fairly certain in making a prediction.
“The FLNKS will be defeated,” he wrote.
Fisher was more cautious.
“Many pro-France supporters say the result of a referendum is likely to be 60 percent in favor of staying with France and 40 percent for full sovereignty,” she told The Politic. “In fact, indicators are few.”
Asked to rate his side’s chances of victory, Railati responded, “I am 100 percent confident that we [separatists] have the right cards to win this referendum.”
While the separatists have lost each of New Caledonia’s last four general elections, they might benefit from provisions in the Nouméa Accord that effectively restrict the referendum’s voting pool to Kanaks and long-term residents.
Cochin, a relatively recent immigrant from Normandy who cannot take part herself, told The Politic she was surprised when separatist and loyalist leaders reached a compromise last November to add a few thousand voters to the electoral roll. The common fear, she explained, was of a repeat of the ill-fated experience of the boycotted 1987 referendum.
This time around, primary players on both sides appear ready to accept the result as legitimate. With campaigning underway, French President Emmanuel Macron has promised to visit, but he has already expressed his preference for an anti-independence victory.
“The French presence is necessary to guarantee peace and development,” Macron told the newspaper Les Nouvelles calédoniennes just before his own election last May.
In her email, Fisher noted that New Caledonia’s vast nickel reserves—possibly exceeding a quarter of the global total—have long made France reluctant to entertain steps toward self-determination.
“By the 1970s, French experts were descending upon the archipelago,” she wrote, “and the French State tightened its control…openly bringing in French residents from the metropolitan and other overseas territories in a bid specifically to outnumber the local indigenous and pro-independence people.”
Macron made the case that a New Caledonia within France could better address growing problems on the islands like youth crime and alcoholism, but few doubt that France has other interests in the referendum outcome.
“The fact the French aid didn’t decrease during the period of transfer of powers was the most surprising,” Chauchat wrote. “Why did France give so much money to the country, if France would leave soon? New Caledonia is more dependent on France today than it was in the close past.”
Fisher explained that France spends over two billion dollars in New Caledonia annually, making significant investments in the archipelago’s schools, hospitals, and transport.
“The question is, if you have independence, will France provide that money?” Zweifel asked.
Loyalists would rather not find out.
“We are sure that if France leaves New Caledonia, the level of material life will drop,” Blaise said. A brochure prepared by his party highlights that New Caledonia enjoys better medical care, higher wages, and vastly higher rates of car ownership and internet connectivity than nearby independent states like Fiji, Vanuatu, and Papua New Guinea.
Perhaps with these advantages in mind, some independence advocates are now proposing a “partnership” with France. But others continue to seek a clean break from French rule, possibly under the “decolonized” name Kanaky.
Locally-mined nickel is part of the reason New Caledonians have a higher standard of living than most of their Pacific neighbors. Nonetheless, a number of mining projects have drawn opposition from Kanak groups, and concerns persist about impacts on the islands’ forests, wetlands, and extensive coral reef system.
“Economically, New Caledonia has prospered with the construction of two giant state-of-the-art nickel processing plants,” Fisher wrote. Now, however, a global supply glut is keeping nickel prices low, and the plants are unprofitable. Many workers have already been laid off, with thousands more jobs under threat.
This danger is not lost on pro-France campaigners.
“Can nickel income substitute for state transfers?” asks a page in the anti-independence brochure.
“Soaring prices in 2007 gave the illusion of a nickel bonanza,” reads part of the reply. “It is not so!”
But even without the current downturn, many separatists agree that an independent New Caledonia should not support itself on nickel alone.
Discussing the environmental costs of mining, Railati said, “When we fight for Kanaks and for Kanaky [New Caledonia], it’s not only for access to our nickel, but it’s also important that we fight for an independent Kanaky that is able to create an economy that is more sustainable.”
Short- or long-term, the nickel sector’s woes are hardly the only worry occupying New Caledonians. Cochin mentioned inequality, education, and health problems like diabetes and obesity.
“People seem more concerned by those kind of issues than whether the country is becoming independent or not,” Cochin said.
Almost everyone interviewed for this story also acknowledged the sense of apprehension on the islands ahead of the vote. But despite coming from opposite sides of the referendum question, both Blaise and Railati remained hopeful.
“The best legacy we have had over the thirty last years,” Blaise said, “is the fact that we have built a culture of democracy, and what was a fight in the civil war has turned into a political fight.”
The pro-independence Railati had a similar message.
“People have died for the Nouméa Accord,” he reminded The Politic. “So today is really an epic moment, a beautiful time for us.”
Come 2019, a referendum will have happened. When the kagus crow for the first time that year, they may do so in a country on a path to independence, or one likely to remain part of France for the foreseeable future. But it will still be a place at once ancient and modern, bucolic and industrial, part Oceania and part Europe. It will still be New Caledonia.