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By Nic Maclellan in Noumea, New Caledonia
A month before New Caledonia’s referendum on self-determination, local mayors from around the country gathered on 4 October at the French High Commission in the capital Noumea.
Hosted by French High Commissioner Thierry Lataste, the meeting discussed preparations for the looming referendum on the French Pacific dependency’s political status. On Sunday 4 November, New Caledonians will vote on the question: “Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?”
As the French State’s official representative in New Caledonia, High Commissioner Lataste highlighted the importance of working with local officials to cover the whole territory.
“As with all elections, the mayors are indispensable participants,” he said. “The vote will take place in each municipality, in each town hall, so they play a crucial role.”
It’s a major exercise, with 283 polling stations across the country, from the mountain valleys of mainland Grande Terre to outlying atolls in the Loyalty Islands, Belep and the Isle of Pines.
The vote is the culmination of a twenty year transition under the Noumea Accord, signed in May 1998 between the French State, the Kanak independence movement Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) and the anti-independence party RPCR. After violent clashes between supporters and opponents of independence during the 1980s, the Noumea Accord created new political institutions and a multi-party government, initiated economic reforms and began the transfer of powers from Paris to Noumea.
The 1998 Accord deferred a referendum on self-determination for twenty years, but time has moved on. Voters will turn out to have their say on 4 November (if New Caledonians vote No, however, the agreement makes provision for two further votes in 2020 and 2022).
Monitoring the vote
After years of dispute over who is eligible to vote, the French High Commission has announced that 174,154 people are registered on the special referendum roll. Under France’s civil code, people can hold civic rights under common law or under customary law for indigenous Kanaks: for the November referendum, there are 94,034 voters with common law status and 80,120 people holding customary status.
Paris has established an official Monitoring Commission for the referendum, made up of magistrates and representatives of key French administrative and constitutional courts. The commission has legal responsibility to monitor, approve and announce the results of the vote. Each polling booth will be supervised by the local mayor or his or her representative, but the French government will fly in 250 delegates from the Monitoring Commission. These delegates will supervise the conduct of voting in each polling booth, and forward reports to the High Commission in Noumea about any incidents or concerns.
“There are new features compared to normal elections,” Lataste said. “There will be 250 people flown in on a charter plane from France, to be located at every polling booth, even in the most isolated part of the mountain range or the outlying islands. There are a whole range of logistic challenges to be addressed and the mayors will play a crucial role in this.”
The United Nations and Pacific Islands Forum will also send a small team to monitor the referendum. With support from Forum member countries, New Caledonia was re-listed as a non-self-governing territory with the United Nations General Assembly in 1986. Since that time, the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation has monitored France’s colonial policies in its Pacific territory, and a UN mission will travel to Noumea later this month to monitor the referendum vote.
“The United Nations has already informed us that they will send a team of 12 elections experts,” noted Lataste. “Obviously 12 people cannot cover all 283 polling booths, but it’s up to them to decide which locations they wish to monitor.”
At their September meeting in Nauru, Pacific Islands Forum leaders agreed that they would also send a Forum Ministerial Mission to monitor the vote, under the auspices of the United Nations.
Since last year, France has increased the number of police and paramilitary forces deployed in New Caledonia. Local gendarmes and French military personnel will provide logistic support for the operation, including the transport of equipment and ballot boxes around the country.
Following recent shooting incidents on the outskirts of Noumea near the village of Saint Louis, conservative parties in New Caledonia are pressing for action to clamp down on “youth delinquency” and criminal behaviour. Speaking after his meeting with New Caledonia’s mayors, Lataste announced a series of security measures for the days around the vote.
“I informed the mayors that I have the intention of issuing a decree to ban the carrying or transport of weapons during the electoral period,” he said. “The movement of weapons will be forbidden from 4pm on Saturday 3 November until midday on Monday 5 November. This will allow people to still go hunting on Saturday, but it’s a necessary precaution for the day of the vote.”
He added: “I also told the mayors that I will issue a decree banning the sale or transport of alcohol, for the whole day on both Saturday 3 November and Sunday 4 November.”
Business as usual?
With just a month before 4 November, the French government has issued an official statement on the aftermath of the vote, to address concerns about the status of the Noumea Accord after the referendum.
If there is a Yes vote, the French government states that “the new structure of public powers resulting from the accession to independence will not enter into force on the day after the referendum. France, tied by history and emotion to New Caledonia, responsible before the people of New Caledonia and the United Nations for the process that is underway, will not abruptly withdraw. Security, public order, public finance and the justice system will be maintained by France for a transitional period following the consultation.”
The statement notes that: “A crucial period of transition, limited in duration, will be put into place to allow the necessary transfer of legal powers [from Paris to Noumea]. French and New Caledonian authorities will develop an agreement setting out the timetable and modalities for the transfer of powers from France to the new State.”
According to the statement, in case of a No vote, “the population of New Caledonia will retain their French citizenship and nationality, as well as their EU citizenship. New Caledonia will continue to be governed by the Noumea Accord. It will remain as a French collectivity and France will continue to accompany New Caledonia in its relations with States in the Pacific zone”
Next year’s elections for New Caledonia’s three provincial assemblies and national Congress will be held as scheduled: “the provincial elections will be held in May 2019, on the same basis as those conducted in May 2014.”
The French Council of State has recently reaffirmed existing rules, which restrict voting rights to long-term New Caledonian citizens rather than all French nationals. The maintenance of this restricted electoral roll is a crucial demand from the FLNKS. At the last assembly elections in 2014, more than 23,000 recent French arrivals – soldiers, public servants and business people – were ineligible to vote for the local political institutions.
With opinion polls currently indicating a ‘No’ majority next month, some conservative anti-independence politicians have sought to remove these constraints on the electoral roll. This has angered independence leaders, who see the decolonisation process continuing to a second referendum in 2020 or a third in 2022, if people vote No at the 4 November referendum.
With supporters and opponents of independence mapping out a series of small town meetings and major public events over the next month, the campaign is well underway.
SOURCE: ISLANDS BUSINESS/PACNEWS
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