Independence movement prepares for referendum
By Nic Maclellan
Remembrance Day, November 11. French soldiers, sailors and police stand in ranks near Noumea’s war memorial at Bir Hakiem, to remember the fallen.
Across town, at Ko We Kara, members of the Union Calédonienne Party recall those who have fallen in the struggle for independence, as they gather at the 48th UC congress. Founded in 1953, the oldest political party in New Caledonia took up the call for independence in 1977.
These competing ceremonies open a crucial year for New Caledonia, just one year away from a referendum on self-determination.
Under the Noumea Accord, New Caledonia must hold the referendum before the end of 2018, with the vote likely next November. With newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron scheduled to make his first visit to the French Pacific dependency next May, the coming year will see increased political mobilisation and debate.
But more than 19 years after the Noumea Accord was signed, the French State has failed to resolve disputes over who is eligible to vote in this crucial decision on the country’s political status.
In early November, political leaders travelled to Paris, to try to forge a compromise on this longstanding dispute. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe hosted the Committee of Signatories, an annual meeting of the original signatories to the 1998 Noumea Accord, together with New Caledonia’s elected representatives to the French parliament and leaders of the major political parties represented in New Caledonia’s Congress.
The Paris meeting made crucial decisions about the electoral roll for the referendum, but there’s still a long way to go. With Prime Minister Philippe due to visit Noumea in early December for further discussions, the independence movement is starting to mobilise its forces.
Last month, the four political parties that make up the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) each held their own congresses. Leaders reported back on the outcomes of the Committee of Signatories, and began to mobilise their members for the year ahead.
The Party of Kanak Liberation (Palika), led by Paul Neaoutyine, gathered at Arama in the north of the main island, while Victor Tutugoro’s Union Progressiste Mélanesienne (UPM) met on Ouvea in the outlying Loyalty Islands. The Rassemblement Démocratique Océanienne (RDO) – which links Wallisian and Tahitian supporters of independence – gathered in Dumbea. The largest congress was for Union Calédonienne (UC), the “older brother” of the independence movement, which met on the outskirts of Noumea from 11-13 November.
Despite improved inter-community relations under the Noumea Accord, the FLNKS still draws most of its support from the indigenous Kanak community. The independence movement has not made a strategic breakthrough to rally mass support from the European community or the large Wallisian and Tahitian population in Noumea and surrounding towns.
Relations between different pro-independence parties have been stretched in recent years, as they debate the best pathway to independence and the type of economy and society to be forged in a sovereign nation. As well as the four-member FLNKS, the smaller Rassemblement des indépendantistes et nationalistes (RIN) includes more radical parties such as Dynamique Unitaire Sud (DUS) and the union-backed Parti Travailliste (PT).
Within the FLNKS, long-standing debates between UC and Palika have led to sharp contests during electoral campaigns and differing tactics within government. In New Caledonia’s national Congress, pro-independence representatives sit in two separate parliamentary groups. The “Union Nationale pour l’Independance” (UNI) links Palika, UPM and RDO, while the “UC FLNKS and Nationalists” group incorporates elected members from UC, PT, and DUS.
Despite these differences, the looming referendum on self-determination is driving these groups together. In a symbol of unity that has not been seen for some time, the closing session of the UC Congress was attended by delegations from all these political parties, as well as representatives from the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), the USTKE trade union confederation and the Eglise Protestante de Kanaky-Nouvelle-Caledonie (EPKNC), the largest Protestant church in the country.
Re-elected as president of Union Calédonienne, Daniel Goa welcomed the diverse leaders from “the independence family” to the UC congress. Speaking to Islands Business, Goa said: “All the parties represented at the congress are on the same path. The timeline is very short and there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Committee of Signatories
The Committee of Signatories was another welcome sign of convergence. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe won praise from most participants for his steady handling and attempts to find compromises between competing interests.
A central political agreement was to register thousands of people on New Caledonia’s general electoral roll – a legal prerequisite to participation in the 2018 referendum on self-determination. FLNKS activists have long complained that up to 25,000 Kanaks are not registered on the general roll, seen as a failure of the French State, given the responsibility of the administering power to ensure that the colonised people should vote in a decolonisation referendum.
In an interview, French High Commissioner to New Caledonia Thierry Lataste acknowledged: “We’ve been talking about the electoral roll for thirty years, but differences and disputes have continued to the present day. For two years, it’s been clear that there are many people – both Kanak and also other people with common civil status – that are not registered to vote on the general electoral roll, and therefore on the list for the consultation in 2018.
“The challenge has been to find these people, identify them, find their address and write to encourage them to register. The High Commission, which is neutral in this matter, must write to say you should register.”
Last year, the French High Commission wrote to nearly 9,000 people encouraging them to register, with a 25 per cent success rate in response. However members of RIN have argued that Kanaks of voting age should be registered automatically, without preconditions, as the “concerned population” under international principles of decolonisation.
The Committee of Signatories agreed on a process to register at least 7,000 Kanaks holding customary civil status under French law, together with another 3,900 people with common civil status (these are people with “material and moral interests” in the country who can also prove three years of residence based on evidence from the CAFAT social security fund). This latter group could include both Kanaks and non-indigenous voters, but French laws on privacy and data collection mean the French State has refused to reveal who is on this list.
Sylvain Pabouty of the DUS party said: “Every time the French State addresses this issue, they find more Kanaks who are not properly registered. The Committee of Signatories agreed that there are another 7,000. But there are 19,646 people with customary civil status in New Caledonia, so what about the other 12,000? It’s important to note that the figure of 7,000 Kanaks is just provisional, and needs further investigation – yet all registration must be completed by the end of the year.”
This call for automatic registration of all Kanaks of voting age has been opposed by anti-independence leaders, who question the numbers on unregistered voters and argue that non-indigenous New Caledonians should also be given automatic registration.
High Commissioner Lataste notes: “People in the non-independence camp argue that it’s not fair that for some this process is automatic, while for others it involves compiling a dossier of documents, searching for information from their parents etc.”
Lataste told Islands Business that despite agreement at the Committee of Signatories, the registration process needs further work. The political compromise must be legalised by changes to the 1999 French legislation that codified the Noumea Accord into law.
“Union Calédonienne believes this can all be resolved without modifying the organic law – the text which frames the elections,” Lataste said. “In contrast, the view of the French government and the other political parties is that we can’t introduce a change which is unknown in France without modifying the organic law.”
Beyond the issue of the electoral roll, the Committee of Signatories debated a number of outstanding issues, still unresolved in the final year of the 20-year transition established by the Noumea Accord in 1998. There will be further discussions in the New Year on the transfer of the remaining “Article 27” powers from Paris to Noumea (granting authority over higher education, TV and radio, and local municipal councils). Leaders also established a working group for the final transfer of ADRAF, the organisation responsible for land reform.
Once people are registered, political parties face the challenge of mobilising their supporters. The Kanak population is a minority in its own country, and current polling suggests a majority of registered electors will not vote for independence in November 2018.
Beyond this, voting is not compulsory in New Caledonia for elections or the looming referendum. The country has a high abstention rate, and across the political spectrum, there are many who express a general disinterest in politics. For the FLNKS, a key challenge would be to mobilise support amongst younger voters who were not born during the troubled decade in the 1980s, and were not part of the renaissance of Kanak nationalism and widespread political and cultural mobilisation.
Over the last five months, an FLNKS team has been touring the country to present a draft framework for “a sovereign Kanaky-New Caledonia.” More than twenty community consultations have been held to outline proposed changes of government, society and economy after the 2018 referendum.
At some community meetings, there have been sharp questions about the lack of detail in the draft, which will be finalised this month. Some people fear the loss of French subsidies for pensions, health or welfare benefits. In response, FLNKS members have started to put out details of the economic options to replace French funding, but there’s a lot of work needed to mobilise wavering independence supporters in the Kanak community.
UC’s Daniel Goa noted: “Currently, about 40 per cent of Kanaks – or at least 30 per cent – don’t vote. So we must work at the level of the family, to provide information so these people can be found. We will find a way to reach out to each tribe, to each extended family, to contact people who are not registered to vote or who abstain. Our objective for 2018 is to mobilise the majority of electors who might participate.”
Finding a way forward
Members of the UC-FLNKS and Nationalists group in the Congress are calling for full and sovereign independence. The re-election of Daniel Goa as president of the largest independence party has re-affirmed the path that saw a UC boycott of the French legislative elections last June.
Palika spokesperson Charles Washetine also reaffirmed that “the Noumea Accord is a decolonisation process which must lead to the emergence of a new country called Kanaky-Nouvelle-Calédonie.”
However, Palika has called for dialogue in coming months over the concept of “pleine souveraineté avec partenariat” (full sovereignty in partnership with France). This would see Kanaky-New Caledonia as a member of the United Nations, with its own passport and sovereign status, but with ongoing relations with France. Palika leaders present this concept as a bridge between the independence movement and those settlers fearful of the model of “free association” promoted by the French State in the 1980s.
The Committee of Signatories established a working group to finalise the wording of the referendum question. Daniel Goa stressed that UC supports the three core elements outlined in the Noumea Accord: transfer to New Caledonia of the remaining sovereign powers (such as defence, foreign affairs, currency and justice), achieving a status of full international responsibility and the transition from citizenship to nationality.
“We’re satisfied with the question set out in the Noumea Accord,” said Goa. “We won’t budge from that. Every time we’ve revisited deals that have been struck, every time we’ve had to make concessions.”
Disunity on the Right
Even as the FLNKS works to unify its forces, there is chaos in the other camp. Anti-independence parties maintain a dominant position in New Caledonia’s political institutions, but are deeply divided as the country moves towards the decision on its political status.
Four anti-independence parties make up the so-called “Platform of Loyalists”: Calédonie Ensemble (CE), Rassemblement Les Républicains (LR), Mouvement pour la Calédonie (MPC) and Tous calédoniens (TC). But unity with other anti-independence forces is broken. A new extreme-right grouping, Les Républicains calédoniens (LRC), brings together leaders such as Sonia Backes, Philippe Blaise and Isabelle Lafleur.
The LRC leaders are angry at the CE and LR, which have tried to promote dialogue with the independence movement. They’re even angrier over the result of the bitter battle for New Caledonia’s seats in the French parliament, which saw CE’s Philippe Gomes and Philippe Dunoyer win both seats in the National Assembly last June and LR’s Pierre Frogier returned to the Senate in October.
LRC leader Sonia Backes says: “We want to renew the political class, in contrast to the Platform, which today reunites all the old guard. We certainly have support from some veterans like Simon Loueckhote, Harold Martin or Didier Leroux, but they all want to push forward a new generation and won’t be standing for seats in the future.”
This rift amongst anti-independence politicians has – once again – paralysed the Government of New Caledonia. Dunoyer’s victory in the June National Assembly elections forced a spill of all government positions, and 11 new members were chosen by Congress on 31 August. But the members of the government have again been unable to choose a President from their ranks, even though anti-independence forces have a 6/5 majority in the government. The sole representative of the LRC in the government has refused to join the five members of the Platform of Loyalists to re-elect President Philippe Germain. With independence members abstaining, Germain cannot gain an absolute majority.
Germain has continued as caretaker President, attending the Forum leaders meeting in Apia and the Committee of Signatories in Paris, but without the authority to sign new commitments. With the government in caretaker mode, the 2018 national budget is yet to pass through Congress, stalling crucial initiatives in a politically sensitive period.
High Commissioner Lataste has tried three times to break the deadlock, but as IB goes to press, LRC is holding firm. The five pro-independence members have said that it’s up to the parties of the Right to decide on their own candidate, leaving the Vice Presidency to the independence forces. Daniel Goa notes wryly: “Every time it’s the same – they fall out, then they want us to sort out their foolishness.”
A delegation from the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) secretariat travelled to Noumea last month to meet with FLNKS leaders and discuss the path towards the referendum. MSG’s Ilan Kiloe told the UC Congress: “Our presence here today demonstrates our commitment to assist you, the Union Calédonienne party as well as the FLNKS, as a member of the MSG.”
Daniel Goa noted that the FLNKS is still looking for international support.
“The work that we’ve begun to clarify the voting list is not yet finished,” he said. “So between now and the end of 2018, we’ll be asking international institutions to call on the French State to meet its commitments. We’re looking internationally for this support, to the United Nations, to the Melanesian Spearhead Group and to the countries of the Pacific region.”
High Commissioner Lataste confirmed that France was open to international scrutiny of the self-determination vote in 2018.
“The French State is open to international monitoring of the process, to describe, to monitor, to freely give their opinion on the manner which the referendum will be organised,” he said. “On the part of the State, it’s not complicated. This is not necessarily the case for the local political parties, especially on the Right, who have long resisted international overview and for whom the words ‘United Nations’ raise a certain fear. However the Committee of Signatories agreed that a UN mission would continue to monitor the electoral registration process next year, as they have done in 2016 and 2017.”
The UN Special Committee on Decolonisation has asked to send a mission to New Caledonia. In Paris last month, political leaders agreed a UN mission could visit in early 2018. All political leaders also agreed there could also be UN observers for the vote itself.
High Commissioner Lataste was less certain about the involvement of the Pacific Islands Forum, which didn’t mention the looming referendum in its 2017 communique: “Curiously, I though the issue would be raised by the Forum in September when they met in Apia, but Philippe Germain told me that this wasn’t raised at all at the highest political level in the leaders retreat. The only person raising Forum involvement is the Secretary General Meg Taylor, but does she have the authority herself to involve the Forum without the agreement of the heads of state and governments themselves? This poses a question.”.