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By Walter Zweifel
With a referendum on independence due on Sunday expected to confirm the status quo, the French prime minister has told the National Assembly in Paris that he doesn't “trust results proclaimed in advance”.
No opinion poll has even hinted that New Caledonian voters will opt for independence but they are being asked whether they 'want New Caledonia to assume full sovereignty and become independent'.
They are being called to the polls because of the terms laid out in the Noumea Accord - the 1998 roadmap which has prescribed the territory's institutional path and expires with this referendum.
Voting will be restricted to 174,000 people, made up of indigenous Kanaks and residents who have lived in New Caledonia continuously since 1994.
Alain Christnacht, who is one of the architects of the Accord, told the AFP news agency few non-Kanaks were expected to vote for independence and even if all Kanaks voted for it, they would fall short of a majority.
The Accord, with its phased and irreversible transfer of power from Paris to Noumea, was reached between the anti-independence RPCR and the pro-independence FLNKS and provided for New Caledonia's Congress to call for such a vote at any time after 2014.
However, the appetite for a referendum had waned over the years, in part because the power-sharing system under the Noumea Accord had helped cement the peace as the driving sentiment on all sides has been to try to avoid the problems of the 1980s.
During the troubles of that decade, which risked blowing up into a separatist war, a first referendum on independence was called in 1987 but it was boycotted by the pro-independence FLNKS.
Although more than 98 percent voted against independence, the result failed to quell the aspirations of the pro-independence Kanak nationalists.
It wasn't until a spike in violence ended 1988's Ouvea hostage crisis that the two rival sides forged a truce which was enshrined in the Matignon Accords.
Under the auspices of the French government a ten-year deal was struck which delayed another independence vote until 1998.
However, fearing a possible flare-up of the troubles, the independence question was buried by adopting the 1998 Noumea Accord which will end with the independence referendum.
Over the years, protagonists have wavered and differed on this key question.
Some anti-independence supporters wanted the vote to be organised as soon as possible to do away with the issue once and for all. Others wanted to ditch the referendum and strike a new accord.
For those keen to adhere to the text of the Noumea Accord, the referendum was inevitable.
With consecutive French governments insisting the referendum be held and with the pro-independence camp committed to it despite its seemingly poor prospects, the date of 4 November was set at a Paris meeting in March of the signatories of the Noumea Accord.
Full regal powers
The vote concerns three aspects.
With a vote for independence, France would transfer the remaining competencies to New Caledonia. This covers defence, internal security/policing, the judiciary, monetary policy and foreign affairs.
Secondly, New Caledonia would become independent and be allowed to seek UN membership.
And thirdly, a New Caledonian citizenship would be created.
Choosing independence, a transition period would be envisaged to allow for a formal declaration of independence in 2021.
The FLNKS has outlined its vision, proposing to rename the country Kanaky New Caledonia and use the FLNKS flag as the national flag.
It suggests creating a multi-cultural and secular republic along the lines of its decolonisation bid submitted to the United Nations in 1986 when New Caledonia was reinscribed on the UN list of non-self-governing territories.
The plan is for a constitution to be drawn up by an assembly of all 'relevant forces' and to be adopted by the people.
The FLNKS wants to dissolve the current Congress and replace it with a national assembly which includes both members voted into provincial assemblies and representatives from customary councils.
The provinces would elect the country's president while the national assembly would elect the government which would be proposed by the president.
For internal security, a unitary police force would be created, combining the powers now held by the national and municipal police as well as the gendarmes.
A three-tier court system would be set up, including a Supreme Court which would assume the functions now held by France's three top courts.
Kanaky New Caledonia would seek UN membership, set up its own armed forces and seek defence cooperation with Pacific Island countries and France to protect its exclusive economic zone.
A future in the French Republic
For the French government, a rejection of independence entails the status quo.
However, this also means that the one provision of the Noumea Accord applies, according to which two more referendums on independence can be called by 2022, if a third of Congress members request them.
Anti-independence parties hope for a massive rejection of independence in order to persuade the other side that a fresh vote in 2020 or 2022 is pointless.
The Caledonian Republicans instead want a clause allowing for an independence referendum every 25 years if half the voters request one.
The party also seeks to introduce an electoral system which offers bonus seats to the winners in order to foster stability.
Currently, the government is a collegial one, made up of 11 members in proportion to the different parties' representation in Congress.
It said these proposed changes should go to a vote by 2020.
The anti-independence side points to the benefits of being part of France, such as the protection by a large power. It warns that without France, New Caledonia could become a 'province of China'.
It is dismissive of the rival side's calculations on how it believes it can balance the books, if the annual $US1.5 billion transfer of budgetary support from France dries up.
It highlights the financial support from France which allows for social services that are far superior to what is available in neighbouring Melanesian countries.
To make the point, figures are being tabled to show for example how many refrigerators or cars there are per 100 inhabitants in places like Fiji and Vanuatu.
Doubt is also cast on whether an independent country of just over a quarter of a million has the depth to fill all the positions to keep operating smoothly.
Little support for a new country
Outside support for an independent New Caledonia has been modest, and stems mainly from separatist Catalonians in Spain, Corsicans, West Papuans and French Polynesia's pro-independence Tavini Huiraatira.
The Pacific Islands Forum, which in the 1980s was a driving force for an independent New Caledonia, has gone cold in its support and the Melanesian Spearhead Group has been muted as well.
No French political party openly endorses independence while the Republicans and the National Rally, formerly National Front, have campaigned for New Caledonia to remain French.
These two parties have traditionally enjoyed more support in New Caledonia than in the rest of France, reflected in last year's French presidential election, which saw the Front's candidate Marine Le Pen outscore the eventual winner Emmanuel Macron in the Noumea area.
This contrasts with a recent opinion poll commissioned by French television which found that in France, almost two thirds of respondents thought New Caledonia's independence would be a “good, or a very good thing”.
Mindful of the fragility of the stabilisation process of the past three decades, French governments have been keen to project a role of neutral arbiter.
Neither side has been fully satisfied. The anti-independence camp has repeatedly been critical of French government leaders for refusing to endorse its openly pro-French line.
On the anti-independence side, France has been accused of skewing the voter registration process to favour new arrivals.
For the small Labour Party in New Caledonia, the registration process has been so flawed that the referendum has become “an electoral farce”. It has asked its supporters not to vote on Sunday but to “go fishing” instead.
Campaigning has seen some fiery sparks, with a leading pro-independence politician labelling his rivals as an 'axis of evil'.
Daniel Goa said the Kanaks wanted to be build a new country, and if those invited to join refuse to go along, his side would need to negotiate independence directly with the colonial power.
A government-appointed committee of elders has been urging for moderation so as not to spawn hate.
The coexistence of the last three decades will be tested on Sunday because the referendum question is so sharp.
While work has been done on a charter of common values, the referendum won't seek to get an affirmation of a position acceptable to all, but will elicit a black and white picture.
All sides keep calling for calm, but concern about discord lingers, and France has flown in an extra 350 riot police to provide additional security.
For the weekend there is a ban on the sale of alcohol and the carrying of firearms and ammunition.
For the referendum day, magistrates have been brought in from France as well to be at the almost 300 polling stations, while UN observers provide additional monitoring.
In an interview with RNZ in 2013, the then president Harold Martin warned against going to a referendum.
“Over all these years, the Caledonians have shown to be able to agree on everything but not on the question of independence”, he said.
Results will be out on 5 November and the French prime minister Edouard Philippe will be in Noumea to discuss the outcome.
SOURCE: RNZ PACIFIC/PACNEWS
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