New Caledonia says “no” to independence

NOUMÉA, New Caledonia – New Caledonia, a tiny group of islands within the South Pacific, will not have a good time the New 12 months by changing into the most recent nation on the planet.

In a referendum held on Sunday, voters overwhelmingly rejected independence. 96 % determined to stay a part of France, in accordance with the preliminary outcomes printed by the French Excessive Fee in New Caledonia on Sunday night.

However despite the fact that the referendum failed and people who voted “no” let the French tricolor fly within the capital Nouméa, the outcome doesn’t imply the tip of desires of New Caledonian sovereignty.

“We’re pursuing our path of emancipation,” stated Louis Mapou, President of New Caledonia, in an interview and brushed apart all the outcomes of the referendum. “That’s the essence.”

Mr. Mapou is the primary pro-independence chief to carry the official title of President in New Caledonia and the primary consultant of the Kanak indigenous neighborhood, which makes up round 40 % of the inhabitants. He describes the territory as a rustic. (He is additionally the sort of president who chauffeurs himself in a Subaru Forester.)

A lot of the Kanak pro-independence bloc boycotted the vote on Sunday after its plea for postponement was rejected, resulting in fears that failure to attend would undermine the legitimacy of the referendum. French President Emmanuel Macron, who has made elevating the nation’s worldwide profile a cornerstone of his marketing campaign for re-election in April, opposed a postponement.

“France is extra stunning as a result of New Caledonia has chosen to remain,” Macron stated in a televised assertion on Sunday.

With its extensively scattered island outposts – similar to French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna within the Pacific Ocean and Mayotte and Réunion within the Indian Ocean – France has one of many world’s largest maritime profiles. However the current collapse of a French submarine settlement with Australia, as a result of intervention of the USA and Britain, embarrassed Paris. Macron had positioned France as a bulwark in opposition to China, which is increasing its affect within the Indo-Pacific.

“Woe to the little ones, woe to the remoted, woe to those that are influenced and attacked by hegemonic powers, who come to search for their fish, their expertise, their financial sources,” he stated in a speech in French Polynesia in July.

Though the “hegemonic energy” remained anonymous, the that means was clear: China.

Sunday’s vote was the third of three independence referenda Paris promised after years of battle in New Caledonia within the Nineteen Eighties, an rebellion identified merely as “The Occasions”. Within the second vote final yr, 47 % voted for independence, in comparison with 43 % within the first referendum in 2018.

By 5 p.m. on Sunday, voter turnout had fallen to 42 %, in comparison with 79 % in the course of the 2020 referendum. Whereas the queues of voters meandered from the polling stations within the French-loyal areas of Nouméa and the encompassing space on Sunday morning, they had been within the strongholds of independence virtually empty.

Kanak leaders had urged the French authorities to postpone Sunday’s referendum till subsequent yr as a brand new outbreak of coronavirus had hit their inhabitants disproportionately. They argued that the Kanak’s lengthy mourning traditions made political campaigning inconceivable.

“The French state disregards the connection between residing and useless Kanak,” stated Daniel Goa, chief of a political social gathering for independence. “The decolonization course of continues with out respecting the individuals who must be decolonized.”

The historical past of the empire is one in every of centuries of submission, however there are few locations on the planet the place colonization endures. After the annexation of New Caledonia in 1853 and the institution of a penal colony, the French compelled the Kanaks from their fertile tribal lands and into reservations. The French brutally crushed Kanak’s efforts to carry them off.

With the invention of nickel, the French authorities introduced employees from Asia and different components of the Pacific to work the mines, that are nonetheless the most important financial engine within the space. Battle and alien illnesses took a lethal toll on the Kanaks, whose inhabitants collapsed by about half in three quarters of a century. Immediately, with an inflow of French pushing Nouméa – civil servants can earn twice what they do in France – the Kanaks are a minority of their homeland.

In preparation for Sunday’s referendum, 1000’s of French safety forces entered the territory of 270,000 folks. The aftermath of the final referendum resulted in violence wherein Kanak youths set nickel mines on fireplace and blocked main roads.

“Half of the nation is for independence and half is in opposition to,” stated Charles Wea, an adviser to the president, earlier than the vote was counted. “We have now to rebuild a brand new social contract. In any other case we’ll all the time be divided. “

New Caledonia is the one place in Melanesia, an arch of islands that stretches from Papua New Guinea to Fiji and stays beneath colonial management. The neighboring Vanuatu gained independence in 1980, the Solomon Islands two years earlier.

French loyalists argue that New Caledonia’s privileged financial place – its GDP per capita would rank it among the many 20 richest nations if thought-about a rustic – is assured by its standing as French territory. Subsidies from Paris fill New Caledonia’s coffers, and the territory’s wealth has doubled over the previous three many years.

Ought to New Caledonia ultimately change into impartial, the territory would commerce France’s geopolitical affect for China, which has expanded its attain throughout Melanesia, French loyalists say. Lethal unrest rocked the Solomon Islands final month, with the prime minister blaming the violence on Taiwan’s swap of diplomatic loyalty to China, the self-governing democracy that’s Beijing’s political rival.

“In case you have a look at France and China, it seems to be very totally different on the subject of human rights,” stated Christopher Gygès, an anti-independence politician and Minister for the Economic system, Overseas Commerce and Power of New Caledonia. “France’s presence will defend us from China’s urge for food and efforts to take management of the area.”

Mr Mapou, the President, has left open the chance that an impartial New Caledonia would entrust its protection to France, permitting Paris to retain a regional stronghold.

“We are able to steadiness,” he says. “We may be within the Pacific, defending our pursuits and sustaining a reference to France and Europe based mostly on historical past and tradition.”

Attracted by the local weather and the snug lifetime of New Caledonia, the inhabitants of Métros, because the newcomers from France are known as, has risen sharply inside a era. The middle of Nouméa is essentially a white metropolis of baguettes and leisurely pétanque video games. New Caledonia’s wealth is concentrated within the southern province the place Nouméa is situated. Even the New Caledonian authorities has its places of work within the province, which is dominated by a white chief.

Regardless of the prosperity of New Caledonia, the earnings disparities are giant. Kanaks make up the overwhelming majority of the territory’s impoverished, unemployed, and incarcerated. Regardless of authorities efforts to assist Kanaks with increased schooling in France, medical doctors, legal professionals and engineers are few in Kanak.

In a cluster of ramshackle public housing in Magenta, a neighborhood in Nouméa, Jeremy Hnalep, 25, stated he had drawn little hope from politics. The constructing lobbies reeked of urine; Teams of younger folks have handed hashish, which is prohibited in New Caledonia.

“The one possibility is to reside outdoors the system as a result of the system won’t change even if you happen to change into impartial,” stated Hnalep.

Kanak politicians estimate that youth unemployment in Kanak exceeds 40 %.

In villages outdoors Nouméa, the colourful flag of Kanaky, because the Kanaks name the nation, flies from market stalls and fishing boats. It flies over funerals and weddings, Catholic holidays, and labor strikes. The French flag isn’t seen.

However on the eve of the vote, Anne-Marie Kourévi, the 81-year-old spouse of a Kanak tribal chief in southern New Caledonia, stated she would vote for “oui” even when she acknowledged the colonial burden on the Kanaks.

“I am French,” she stated, “and I have been for over 80 years.”

Aurelien Breeden contributed the reporting from Paris.

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