The United Nations has sent a delegation to New Caledonia in the lead up to crucial municipal and provincial elections as supporters and opponents of independence joust over who should have the right to vote.
The UN delegation arrived in New Caledonia in March in the midst of the electoral campaign for local town councils. The visit also coincided with the arrival of French judges charged with updating the electoral rolls for national elections to be held on 11 May.
According to a UN statement, the objective of the visit is to monitor “New Caledonia’s provincial electoral process, especially the technical issues related to the electoral lists for the provincial elections in May, as well as to uphold the spirit and letter of the 1998 Noumea Accord in this process.”
New Caledonia was relisted with the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation in 1986, and since that time the UN has maintained a watching brief over progress towards a referendum on self-determination in the French Pacific dependency.
As Islands Business magazine goes to press, voters in New Caledonia are awaiting the results of two rounds of voting in municipal elections held on 23 and 30 March.
The final results will give an indication of the balance of forces within and between political camps. A good result in the municipal elections will also provide momentum for political parties as they campaign for elections in May for New Caledonia’s three provincial assemblies and national Congress.
This year’s election is the culmination of a long transition under the Noumea Accord - if the incoming Congress agrees by 3/5 majority, the country can proceed to a vote on New Caledonia’s final political status. After 15 years of collegial government, relations between leading political figures have begun to fray in the lead up to the crucial vote.
United Nations scrutiny
The United Nations delegation was led by Amadu Koroma of Sierra Leone, vice president of the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation, joined by representatives from Ecuador, Papua New Guinea and Fiji, together with UN decolonisation experts and officials.
The two Pacific nations are both members of the UN decolonisation committee. Papua New Guinea’s UN ambassador Robert Aisi, chair of the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) group, was joined in New Caledonia by Esala Nayasi, political director at the Fijian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
While the visit was approved by the French Government, local anti-independence parties soon made it clear that they did not support the UN involvement in New Caledonian affairs. The Union pour une Calédonie dans la France, which unites some parties loyal to France, stated: “We state that the Union for New Caledonia within France does not support this visit… This visit brings with it tension and confusion, at a time we have need of clarity and serenity.”
Philippe Gomes, leader of the anti-independence Calédonie Ensemble (CE), attacked the presence of a Fijian representative in the UN delegation. In a similar gesture to the one he made before the 2013 Melanesian Spearhead Group summit in New Caledonia, Gomes wrote to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius criticising Fiji as a “military dictatorship” that should not “interfere in the affairs of a democratic country.”
The UN mission met with political and community leaders, the Kanak Customary Senate and provincial authorities. It will present its report to a regional seminar of the UN Special Committee, to be held in Fiji in May, and the next formal meeting of the committee in New York.
The municipal elections have brought new faces to local politics. Long-serving Mayor of Noumea Jean Leques announced last year that he would not re-contest his position on the capital city’s town council. Leques, an 82-year-old veteran of anti-independence politics, was first elected mayor in 1986 at the height of armed conflict between supporters and opponents of independence. From 1999, he also served as the President of New Caledonia for two years, following the first elections held after the signing of the Noumea Accord.
In a city where the majority of voters are of European heritage and oppose independence from France, there is a fierce competition for the top job between three anti-independence parties: Calédonie Ensemble (CE) led by Philippe Gomes; Rassemblement UMP (RUMP) led by Pierre Frogier, and the breakaway party Mouvement Populaire Calédonien (MPC) led by Gael Yanno.
Yanno, a former deputy mayor in Noumea, left the largest conservative party RUMP last year and established his own group after falling out with RUMP leader Pierre Frogier. Yanno is seeking to rally conservative French voters, criticising RUMP’s policies and Frogier’s attempts to build links with Union Calédonienne (UC), the largest pro-independence party in the country. RUMP has lost some support from European voters after it backed independence leader Roch Wamytan to be Speaker of New Caledonia’s Congress and endorsed the policy of flying two flags - the French tricolour and the flag of Kanaky - outside public buildings.
In a pre-election coup, Yanno persuaded the conservative UMP party in France to formally endorse his breakaway group rather than the larger RUMP, to the annoyance of RUMP mayoral candidate Jean-Claude Briault. Another leading RUMP politician, Pierre Bretegnier, also defected to the MPC in the middle of the municipal election campaign.
The other leading candidate for Mayor of Noumea is Sonia Lagarde of the Calédonie Ensemble party. As well as serving in New Caledonia’s Congress, Lagarde is also deputy in France’s National Assembly in Paris, after defeating the long-standing RUMP representative in 2012 elections.
For the municipal vote in the southern province, much of the independence movement has launched the Mouvement Nationaliste Unitaire (MNU) led by Jean-Raymond Postic. This is a united list that includes activists from a range of pro-independence forces: FLNKS members (UC, UPM and RDO) together with parties that support independence but are not formal members of the independence coalition: Libération Kanak Socialiste (LKS); Dynamik Unitaire Sud (DUS) and Parti Travailliste (PT).
This effort at unity has been undercut by a separate initiative led by Marie Claude Tjibaou, the widow of assassinated Kanak leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou. Her Ouverture Citoyenne (OC) has been widely criticised in the independence movement, with PT President Louis Kotra Uregei suggesting it is a deliberate attempt by the French state to disrupt efforts to build a common pro-independence platform: “Instead of having united pro-independence lists in the South, as it is necessary to prepare for the provincial elections in May, we see once again an Ouverture Citoyenne ticket, as happened in 2009. This list includes the League for Human Rights and the French Socialist Party, which does not support independence for this country - so we ask what are they doing there?”
This effort by the MNU to unite independence supporters in Noumea has been replicated in nine other municipalities across the country such as the northern town of Hienghene where UC President Daniel Goa is leading a united FLNKS ticket.
But in other areas in the Northern Province and the outlying Loyalty Islands where Kanaks are the overwhelming majority of the population, each different independence party is running its own list. On the island of Mare there are seven different tickets, while in other municipal battles, the Union Caledonienne (UC), the Party of Kanak Liberation (Palika) and the Parti Travailliste (PT) are all running their own tickets, seeking a majority on municipal councils. An FLNKS Congress in January called for competing parties to unite if there is a second round run-off against anti-independence forces.
While the municipal elections were focussed on urban issues, the social gulf between Kanaks and Europeans in Noumea raised broader tensions. CE’s Sonia Lagarde is mobilising support amongst French voters in the city by highlighting issues of security and youth delinquency, focussing attention on the many young, unemployed Kanaks who have moved to the capital looking for education, employment or enjoyment.
In contrast, the MNU electoral statement said: “There are great disparities between the northern and southern suburbs in Noumea. It is vital that we overcome the gap in public infrastructure in the northern suburbs, as well as improving the quality of life of all inhabitants so they can be proud of belonging to the same city.”
For the pro-independence MNU, town councils must work directly with the young: “This population is too often neglected. We must put together the equivalent of a Marshall Plan to help them avoid idleness and living on the edge. This plan would involve a policy of popular education, developing places to support them to provide activities for their spare time, artistic and cultural expression and professional training.”
Different voting rolls
Beyond the basics of housing, public transport, social services and jobs, the campaign for the municipal elections was intensely political, with competing parties seeing the town halls as a springboard for the vote next May to elect provincial assemblies and the national Congress.
Because voting is not compulsory in New Caledonia, it is vital to mobilise uncommitted voters. But the electorate for the municipal vote in March is not exactly the same as the national poll on 11 May.
New Caledonia’s voting system is different for local, provincial, national and European elections. All French nationals of voting age who register at the local town hall are eligible to vote in the March municipal elections, as well as elections for the National Assembly and Senate in France and European parliament.
However under the 1998 Noumea Accord, voting for May’s crucial elections for the three provincial assemblies and the Congress is restricted to a limited electoral roll of New Caledonian citizens, rather than all French nationals. This special electoral roll for the local institutions is restricted to those who meet residency criteria set out in the Noumea Accord, a policy confirmed by a joint sitting of the French parliament in 2007.
At the last Congressional elections in 2009, some 18,230 people resident in New Caledonia —11.8 per cent of the normal electoral roll — could not vote in that year’s elections for the local institutions. These were mainly French public servants, soldiers and short term contract workers who have travelled from Europe to the Pacific, but do not see New Caledonia as their home. In contrast, the independence movement has recognised since 1983 that the so-called “victims of history” - the descendants of the convicts, soldiers and farmers who arrived in New Caledonia in colonial days - were welcome in the country “to build a common destiny.”