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After Kanak surge, French Prime Minister calls for meeting in Paris

By Nic Maclellan in Noumea, New Caledonia

At the end of a day-long visit to New Caledonia, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has invited independence leaders and anti-independence politicians to travel to Paris in December, to “collectively draw together our conclusions about the referendum.”

Accompanied by Overseas Minister Annick Girardin, Prime Minister Philippe flew to the French Pacific dependency on 5 November, the day after New Caledonia’s referendum on self-determination. This vote was the culmination of a twenty-year transition established by the 1998 Noumea Accord: 56.4 per cent of registered voters decided to remain within the French Republic, while 43.6 per cent voted Yes for independence.

Out of 141,099 ballots lodged, there were 138,933 valid votes (with 2,166 blank or void votes). As announced by Francis Lamy, head of the referendum Control Commission, “there were 78,360 voting No to accession to full sovereignty and 60,573 voting Yes.”

The French Prime Minister welcomed the decision of New Caledonians to stay with France, noting that the referendum debate had “been divisive but not heartbreaking.”

Philippe spent the day in a series of separate meetings with each of the five political groupings that contested the official referendum campaign. He also met French High Commission staff, the Control Commission that administered the referendum as well as members of the ”Committee of the Wise” (a body he established last December to help moderate the tone of the debate about New Caledonia’s future).

In the afternoon, Philippe made a flying visit by military helicopter to meet the leaders of New Caledonia’s largest independence parties, Daniel Goa of Union Calédonienne (UC) and Paul Neaoutyine of the Parti de Libération Kanak (Palika). The media pool that accompanied the Prime Minister all the way to the provincial capital of Koohne (including this correspondent) was disappointed when none of the three would appear for a post-meeting photo or interview (the loudest groan seemed to come from the French security officers monitoring the press pack, who had to accompany us back to the capital with little to show for the afternoon’s adventure).

In a brief public address that evening at the French High Commission, Philippe noted that his day of meetings had continued the necessary dialogue between contending parties: “I recall from these meetings that everyone recognised the legitimacy of the vote and that no one would contest its outcome. All my interlocutors wished to further analyse the results of the vote in greater depth and to measure all the implications.”

The French Prime Minister announced that a meeting of the Committee of Signatories would be held in December in Paris. This monitoring body, which links signatories to the 1998 Noumea Accord, New Caledonia’s representatives in the French parliament and key political leaders, has been a crucial venue for the French State to push the contending parties towards consensus.

Kanak support for independence

While acknowledging and welcoming the decision of New Caledonians to remain within the French Republic, Prime Minister Philippe also recognised the overwhelming support for independence amongst the indigenous Kanak people.

Over many months, a slow-building groundswell of grassroots campaigning brought forward a major mobilisation on “Jour-J’ (D-Day), as thousands of Kanaks turned out, many of whom had never voted before.

The No campaign clearly won the referendum and the bald figures suggest a setback for the independence coalition Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS).

However as the votes were counted on Sunday night, TV viewers could see growing concern on the faces of anti-independence leaders, as they commented on the count. Early in the night, with the Yes vote hovering at 25-30 per cent, there was an air of triumphalism and a belief that the Right had smashed, not just defeated, the FLNKS vision of independence. As the night wore on and the Yes vote rose to 30 per cent, 40 per cent and beyond, the faces of anti-independence leaders fell further and their comments become more conciliatory.

The final victory is little comfort for the anti-independence Right. Successive opinion polls had suggested the Yes vote would be between 27 and 35 per cent. Conservative politicians had publicly threatened that an overwhelming No vote would open the way to roll back many achievements made by the Kanak people since the Noumea Accord was signed, including restrictions on the electoral roll for local political institutions, funding for the rural provinces and ongoing scrutiny by the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation.

In reality, the size of the Yes vote gives the independence movement the dynamism to continue to a further referendum after next May’s provincial elections. The Noumea Accord makes provision for a second referendum in 2020 in case of a No vote. This second vote, and even a third in 2022, can be called by a third of the members of Congress (18 out of 54). With pro-independence parties holding 25 seats in the current Congress, they clearly have the numbers to proceed to another referendum, building on this week’s massive turnout.

Thanking their supporters in the Yes campaign, the FLNKS Political Bureau stated: “The massive participation of the First People has confirmed, before the United Nations and the whole world, the desire to accede their only country to independence. In the discussions on the future of the country, the anti-independence political parties cannot pretend to ignore this and the French government has the responsibility to take account of this desire for accession to full sovereignty.”

The statement noted: “Through its dynamism and fighting spirit, the FLNKS has drawn support beyond its traditional constituency to convince a good number of non-Kanaks of the legitimacy of their cause.”

The FLNKS will hold a press conference next Friday, to discuss the outcome of the vote. Behind doors, they’ll also be looking at some of the weaknesses of the independence push, including a low turnout in the outlying Loyalty Islands and complications with proxy voting. There will also be extensive debate over calls for “non-participation” by the Parti Travailliste (Labour Party) and the trade union confederation Union Syndicale des Travailleurs Kanak et Exploités (USTKE), who saw the referendum as “fraudulent” and a diversion from “the right of the colonised Kanak people alone to determine its political status.”

The need for dialogue

After the 4 November referendum, the largest anti-independence party Calédonie ensemble (CE) welcomed the No victory, saying it reflected “the maturity and the remarkable sense of responsibility that New Caledonians have shown during the electoral campaign and the conduct of the actual vote. This has allowed us to make this decision an exemplary democratic process.”

In coming weeks, the Right will clearly push the FLNKS to respect the democratically expressed views of the New Caledonian people. In turn, however, the FLNKS will call on the French State and its New Caledonian partners to uphold the full provisions of the Noumea Accord, which are entrenched in law in the French Constitution.

Roch Wamytan leads the UC-FLNKS parliamentary group in New Caledonia’s Congress. Together with fellow UC politician Caroline Machoro-Reignier, he met with Prime Minister Philippe to discuss the results of the vote.

Speaking after the meeting, Wamytan said: “We told the Prime Minister we would follow, with all serenity, the path established by the Noumea Accord. He himself raised the point that the French State was a signatory to the Accord and would exercise all responsibilities under the law, given that France is the administering power for New Caledonia as a non-self-governing territory.”

“We look at the Noumea Accord differently to some of our political partners,” Wamytan added. “It’s not an à la carte menu, where you can choose which things you’d like to order. No, it’s a whole package that we signed onto in May 1998. It starts at point A and goes to point Z. Between now and point Z, there are two potential referendums, so we’ll head that way.”

The Yes vote on 4 November was drawn mainly from the Kanak electorate, with a majority of non-Kanaks – of European, Wallisian, Tahitian or Asian heritage – voting to remain with France. But even without a strategic breakthrough to draw mass support from other communities, Wamytan believed that many would see the way the tide was turning.

 “The FLNKS political project – the independence of New Caledonia and its accession to full sovereignty – has become possible as an alternative for the non-Kanak,” he said. “The Kanak electorate has spoken, the young have spoken, and they are following us. Now the other communities can speak. Our project has become credible and they can find their place in the sun.”

“For us, we’ve passed an important step that was set out twenty years ago,” he added. “Now, we have to look at all the things that need to be done for a second referendum and if needed, a third.”

During the referendum campaign, conservative politicians like Sonia Backes and Philippe Blaise argued that a majority No vote should open the way for the removal of New Caledonia from the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories. Long reliant on international scrutiny and support, the FLNKS is firmly opposed to this idea.

Wamytan indicated the FLNKS will seek to mobilise allies in the Melanesian Spearhead Group and other international organisations, to persuade the French government to reject this idea: “We are still colonised, and we’ll only be decolonised when we exit from this colonial system, with a new relationship with France and with Europe. That’s why, for some years to come, we have need for support from our Pacific brothers, from the Pacific Islands Forum, the Melanesian Spearhead Group, the Non Aligned Movement and our friends from Corsica, the Basque country, Catalonia and beyond.”    

Youth mobilisation

The vote for independence was strongest in the two regions where the majority of the population is indigenous Kanak: the Northern Province (75.8 per cent voting Yes) and the Loyalty Islands Province (82.1 per cent Yes). There was 86 per cent voter participation in the North, but only 58.8 per cent in the outlying Loyalty Islands, and FLNKS leaders will study the reasons for such a low turnout in the islands, especially as Loyalty Islanders living in Noumea turned out in vast numbers at special voting booths in the capital.

In contrast, the Southern Province, with a majority non-Kanak electorate, voted strongly 73.71 per cent to stay with France, with only 26.29 per cent of southern voters opting for independence.

The more populous south and the capital Noumea remain a bastion of anti-independence sentiment, but the FLNKS were encouraged by their increased support. In 2014, Roch Wamytan headed a united Arc-en-Ciel (Rainbow) electoral list for the Southern provincial elections, gaining 18.1 per cent of the vote in a region dominated by conservative parties. In this light, the 26 per cent referendum tally in the South was a welcome increase.

This progress was acknowledged in a post-referendum statement from the anti-independence Calédonie ensemble (CE) party, which recognised the significant mobilisation of the Kanak people in the Southern Province: “This progression, equivalent to a doubling of the independence vote, was apparent especially in the working class suburbs of Noumea and of the towns of greater Noumea. This exceptional mobilisation was at the heart of the balance of forces in the referendum, which was more favourable to the independence movement that it was in the 2014 provincial elections.”

This evolving balance of forces led Philippe Gomes’ CE party to reaffirm its platform of dialogue between the contending parties.

“This reality means that electoral mathematics alone cannot create a political solution for New Caledonia. We are obliged, more than ever, to nourish a deeper dialogue between supporters and opponents of independence. All those who want to ‘purge’ the question of independence by suppressing the right to a second and third referendum, as foreseen in the Noumea Accord (the proposition of Pierre Frogier) or by trying to restrict the right to self-determination (the proposal of the Backes / Blaise group) are mistaken about the era.”

Two weeks ago, I interviewed Gomes about CE’s referendum projections of a 70/30 victory. I suggested that he might amend his early predictions, given the dynamism of the independence movement’s campaign. Gomes was dismissive, reaffirming his 70/30 prediction.

 “The dynamic of the referendum campaign is against them, because they don’t believe!” he said. “You can feel it in their meetings. I have pity for them. I’d love to be in their place to sell ‘Kanaky’! You don’t feel that the great day is coming - they’re locked in the past, the poor Kanaks who’ve suffered under colonisation, but incapable of looking forward, of responding to the concrete questions that are put to them.”

Gomes confidence was clearly misplaced. The day after the referendum, Roch Wamytan pointedly commented on the Right’s triumphalism, telling me: “We are waiting for them to make a mea culpa about all their grand declarations about the results – 80/20 or 70/30 against independence. They wrote it, they crowed about it everywhere. The real results? We gained nearly 44 per cent.”

Following the vote, the French press welcomed the significant No victory, but highlighted the strategic surge in the independence vote. A headline in New Caledonia’s daily newspaper Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes says: “A large victory for No, but the Yes surprises.” The paper reported: “After a vote notable for the participation rate of 80.6 per cent, the No vote comes out on top – but with a gap much smaller than expected. The North and the Islands have massively voted Yes.”

The France 24 TV network headlined: “The dream of Kanaky is not dead in New Caledonia”, noting that “much closer than predicted in the opinion polls, the referendum result in New Caledonia gives comfort to the independence movement, who can hope for a victory in 2020.”

Union of Loyalists

The day after the vote, Sonia Backes put on a brave face: “It wasn’t a setback, just different figures to those given by the opinion polls.”

As leader of the Right-wing party Les Républicains calédoniens (LRC), Backes is a fierce partisan of New Caledonia remaining within France. Backes hailed the victory of the No campaign, saying that New Caledonia should not wait until further referendums in 2020 and 2022 to forge a new political agreement.

“The result is such that the Yes did not carry the day,” she said. “So we can’t wait four more years that might destabilise the politics and economy of New Caledonia – we need to start discussions now. The independence movement no doubt feels reinforced by this result and wants to proceed to the second or third referendum. We need instead to talk to them. In order for us to join the discussions from a position of firmness, it’s important that the loyalist camp comes together.”

Backes called for a “Union of Loyalists”, uniting those who want to remain within the French Republic. But over the last decade, there have been similar failed attempts to forge a solid conservative bloc, including the “Pact of Governance” and the “Platform of Loyalists.” Each time, a united platform has come together to block an FLNKS advance or carve up key positions in the government, Congress and Southern Province. Each time, however, the competing agendas of the anti-independence parties have pushed them apart, creating new bad blood.

Elected as President of New Caledonia in 2009, CE’s Philippe Gomes lost office after two years, following a series of no confidence motions. In 2015, New Caledonia was without a president for more than three months, after the collapse of the government led by President Cynthia Ligeard of the Rassemblement party. Other Right wing representatives in the government refused to back CE’s Philippe Germain as her replacement. After months of indecision, it took a change of heart from FLNKS ministers in the government to break the deadlock (they had stood aside to let the Right chose one of their own as President, but finally stepped in after months of paralysis, to supply the necessary votes for Germain).

Today, CE leaders may not find similar sympathy from key independence leaders in Noumea, even with their pledge of dialogue. The day after the referendum, UC’s Roch Wamytan said that Philippe Gomes’ program was based on “fear, lies, manipulation and falsified history.” Welcome to the post-referendum dialogue!

CE and Rassemblement-LR face a further challenge on their right flank from the LRC, led by Sonia Backes and Philippe Blaise. With the May provincial elections next on the political calendar, Backes can’t wait to go to war with her allies.

Even as she calls for the main conservative parties to unite, she condemns key leaders like Senator Pierre Frogier for their goodwill gestures towards the Kanak people (such as Frogier’s 2010 proposal that the flag of Kanaky should fly alongside the French tricolour outside town halls, schools and all other public buildings in New Caledonia).

Speaking the day after the referendum, Backes called on the Right to renew its leadership: “We have need of a renewed team to defend New Caledonia within France.”

“For us, this new Union of Loyalists must involve renewal of the political class,” she told me. “All the concessions made by the loyalists have not drawn the independence movement towards France, so I think it can be said that this policy has not been a success. Those who have promoted this policy have come to the end of their time.”

Are you talking about Pierre Frogier? “I’m thinking of certain personalities who have been players on the political field for 35 years” (an unmistakable reference to the Rassemblement – Les Républicains leader).

Backes is ever sharper about Philippe Gomes and Calédonie ensemble: “There are people in our camp who, without ambiguity, called for a No vote. But there are others in the loyalist camp who called for a ‘little no’, who didn’t want an overwhelming victory for the No camp. Today, for us, Calédonie ensemble promotes shared sovereignty and the transfer of some of the sovereign powers, so we don’t see them as part of the loyalist camp. We want to unite the loyalist camp, not the nationalists, that’s clear.”

So there’s going to be a Union of Loyalists but without Philippe Gomes and Pierre Frogier! It seems there will be six months of trench warfare before next May’s elections, as the contending parties on the Right argue over the best way to staunch the surge of independence sentiment.

Currently, CE holds the most seats in New Caledonia’s Congress, both of New Caledonia’s seats in the French National Assembly, one of two seats in the French Senate and also the Presidency of the Southern Province. CE’s Philippe Germain serves as President of the Government of New Caledonia.

In an interview before the referendum, I asked CE President Philippe Gomes whether this made his party a big target in next May’s provincial elections, with Frogier’s LR/MPC and Backes’ LRC seeking to reduce his majority.

 “In principle, I’d rather lose an election than lose my soul,” he said. “I know who I am. I have a vision for the country. We talk of the Caledonian people, the reduction of social inequality, an education program, recognition of Kanak identity. We have a true plan and we won’t prostitute ourselves to win votes.”

In the meantime, other forces will continue to give the Germain government a hard time. Last week, striking firefighters held a powerful rally outside the government headquarters, and were only persuaded to postpone a wider stoppage because of the referendum. The unions will soon be back in action.

The employers’ federation will also launch a massive, well-funded campaign against the Germain government’s signature tax reform, the Taxe Générale à la Consommation (TGC). Introduced on 1 October, this new goods and services tax replaces seven other outdated taxes. However the TGC is opposed by many importers and local businesses, who will campaign for the next six months to neuter the tax reform that upsets the comfortable regime of perks, privileges and rorts that Noumea’s elite has come to expect.

Calming angry youth

On referendum eve, angry young Kanaks from the Saint Louis tribe burnt tires on the main road linking Noumea to Mont Dore. The tribe, on the outskirts of Noumea, has long served as a symbol of “Kanak delinquency” and chaos for the Right, damaging the reputation of UC politician Roch Wamytan, who is a high chief from Saint Louis. Residents of Mont Dore are regularly frustrated that the road is unsafe, with youth stoning their cars, incidents of crime in the neighbourhood and even armed clashes with the gendarmerie that occasionally move in to assert control.

Clashes escalated in the 48 hours after the referendum vote, as police using armoured cars and a helicopter moved in to clear the road. Wamytan argued that the clashes would die down soon: “Many young Kanaks, at Saint Louis and other places, could not exercise their right to self-determination. It’s the Kanak people alone who have the right to self-determination, but it’s our elders who opened the way to share this right with others. Yesterday, in many places, people couldn’t participate. The mechanisms that we put in place with the High Commissioner didn’t function correctly, as people came to vote but couldn’t do so.”

This social conflict is evidence of the vast cultural and economic gulf between many Kanaks and the well-off residents of Noumea’s southern suburbs, who voted overwhelmingly against independence.  But for the French authorities celebrating the serenity and success of referendum day, the Saint Louis clashes and other acts of arson in the Southern Province were a sideshow to the main game.

For French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, his flying visit achieved a key purpose, which is to keep everyone talking.

But in the aftermath of the referendum, everyone realises that the Kanak independence movement has new wind in its sails. They lost on referendum day, but defied all predictions and made their mark. The dream of independence lives on in the hearts of a new generation.

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