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Obstacles remain as New Caledonia prepares to vote on independence from France

Nicolas Petit, AFP | Prime Minister Édouard Philippe and some of the young New Caledonians designated electoral “ambassadors” on December 2 as part of an effort to mobilise the youth vote.

A year ahead of the deadline for a referendum on independence from France, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe is visiting the semi-autonomous overseas territory of New Caledonia to help oversee preparations for the 2018 vote.


"The stakes for New Caledonia are considerable," French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said on Saturday at his first press briefing in the Caledonian capital Nouméa. Residents must decide by next November whether the archipelago will opt for full sovereignty, the result of an almost 30-year-long process.

Both Britain and France laid claim to parts of New Caledonia during the first half of the 1800s, but the archipelago became a French possession in 1853 when it was seized by Napoleon III and was used as a penal colony for much of the next half-century.

Today the 280,000-strong population of the archipelago is about 40 percent indigenous Kanak (of which most support independence) and about 30 percent European, with residents from the French overseas collective of Wallis and Futuna making up another 8 percent. A mixture of Tahitians, Indonesians, Vietnamese and others account for the other 22 percent.

Calls for independence became increasingly forceful in the 1980s and early 1990s, reaching a fever pitch on the eve of a Caledonian presidential vote in April 1988 when three French gendarmes were killed and another 27 were taken hostage by militants from the Kanak Socialist Liberation Front, who blamed the French government for the violence and demanded negotiations on independence.

The independence movement culminated in the 1998 Nouméa Accord, which agreed to transfer more and more governing responsibility from France to New Caledonia over a period of 20 years. The agreement also required France to allow a referendum to be held by November 2018 on whether New Caledonia should gain full independence.

But the road to the referendum remains long and arduous. On his four-day visit to the territory, Philippe will seek to surmount some of the persistent obstacles.

Who can vote?

The issue of who will be allowed to cast votes in the independence referendum has been the subject of intense debate on the islands for many years due to the existence of two parallel electoral lists. The list that will be used for the referendum requires voters to have had continuous residency in the archipelago since at least 1994 while the list used for provincial elections only requires residency in the archipelago since 1998.

After lengthy discussions between the Committee of Signatories of the Nouméa Accord and Philippe at the prime minister’s office at Matignon on November 2, a deal was reached to increase voter registration.

"Everything possible will be done to identify everyone who is not yet registered on the electoral lists but who is qualified to be,” Philippe said in an interview on Saturday with the territory’s French-language news daily, New Caledonians. The prime minister added that the territory’s new computerised lists have made the voting process more reliable.

An awareness campaign has also been launched across the archipelago to convince young people to register to vote. Electoral "ambassadors", many of them young people, were nominated Saturday at a ceremony attended by the prime minister alongside judo champion Teddy Riner.

Fears of unrest

While Prime Minister Philippe has expressed the hope that calm will prevail as the referendum goes forward, there are persistent fears of unrest at certain polling stations. France is considering asking UN observers to be present on polling day.

"The major risk is that the separatists would contest the result,” one New Caledonian official told Le Figaro. “And more and more Kanaks are for remaining a member of the French Republic. So the referendum could well lead to a large victory for the loyalists."

It is important that neither of the two camps feels humiliated by the vote, the official said, noting: “After the referendum, we must also have a tomorrow." Moreover, the Nouméa Agreement calls for two more referendums to be held in the coming years to either confirm or invalidate the results of the first.

Philippe has urged officials to engage in "intense discussions" to prepare for after the vote with an eye to preserving the peace that prevails in the archipelago.

Ready for independence?

According to a poll by the I-Scope Institute for Caledonia released last May, more than 54 percent of registered voters would vote against independence. But the undecided rate is still very high at 21.4 percent.

Would you vote for full sovereignty?
The survey asks: If the referendum were to be held in a week, would you vote for or against full sovereignty for New Caledonia? Against: 54.2 percent, For: 24.4 percent, Undecided: 21.4 percent. I-Scope

Both separatists and loyalists have persistent doubts about the ambiguity that reigns over this French territory, which already has a government, a Congress and a Senate (the French state is represented by the High Commissioner of the Republic, whose role is similar to that of a prefect).

"Many people regret that recent years have not been used for debate, to evaluate the issues [and] inform the inhabitants," said Socialist Party deputy René Dosnière in a March report.

Former justice minister Jean-Jacques Urvoas, presenting the findings of a parliamentary committee on the “institutional future” of New Caledonia, has proposed two options that are compatible with both the French Constitution and the economic and demographic realities of the archipelago: to allow it to become either an “associated state" or a "federal state". In the first case, New Caledonia could decide to delegate certain powers to France: notably those for defense, public security, economy and justice. As a federal state, New Caledonia would remain constitutionally within the fold of the French state but would have an independent constitution. The division of powers would be negotiated with Paris, with France having the final word in matters of litigation.

A question of timing

With the vote required to be held “by November 2018”, no one yet knows exactly when it will take place – the New Caledonian Congress has until May to decide on a date. But first, progress must be made on several outstanding issues.

Time is running out, Urvoas warned last summer.

"If nothing is decided by March 2018, the state will take the lead and assume its roles and responsibilities by taking the initiative on a [constitutional] issue … with a response that will be binary, and we will be left with what no one wants: namely, a very divisive referendum," he said.

There is new cause for hope, however, since the New Caledonian government ended three months of political stalemate on December 1. After several days of negotiations, the independence and loyalist camps managed to agree to elect a chief executive – centre-right outgoing president Philippe Germain.

In a joint declaration solemnly read out in front of the press, Caledonia’s elected representatives expressed their "shared desire to open an in-depth dialogue between the pro-independence and anti-independence groups in order to prepare for the referendum deadline and for what follows".

This article has been translated from the original in French.


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