A French revolution in the Pacific?

29 May 2014
A Kanak woman with a New Caledonian flag at recent elections. Copyright photo by Nic Maclellan.

An independence movement in New Caledonia is gradually gaining traction. But for the meantime, the French flag is still flying, reports BELINDA CRANSTON.

As New Caledonia moves towards self-determination, some anti-independence groups in the French Pacific territory are coming round to the idea of greater autonomy.

Journalist and researcher Nic Maclellan visited all three of its administrative divisions – Southern Province, Northern Province and Loyalty Islands Province, during congressional elections in May, examining whether the nation should hold a referendum on independence.

“In this latest election, the independence movement increased its representation in the national congress,” he said.

Twenty-five of the country’s congress 54 seats were won by independence supporters – two more than in the 2009 elections , but still short of the 28 needed to secure an absolute majority.

Maclellan was speaking ahead of a seminar hosted by the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia program at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific this week.

New Caledonia’s indigenous inhabitants, the Kanak people, are the strongest supporters of independence.

Those opposed to the movement include French migrants living in New Caledonia’s Southern Province, and others from French territories like Wallis and Tahiti.

“Many are opposed to independence because they feel that a break from France will end their privileged lifestyle,” Maclellan said.

New Caledonia’s economy depends heavily on subsidies from France – a perception of economic ruin, along with an emotional attachment to the French flag, are other factors holding back the independence movement.

Maclellan, a correspondent for Islands Business magazine in Fiji, says while some anti-independence groups do not want a final break with the French republic, “they do see the need for greater autonomy, and greater local governance over key sectors, both of the administration, and of the economy”.

New Caledonia is undergoing growing autonomy under the terms of the 1998 Noumea Accord, an agreement between French loyalists and independence supporters, after unrest in the 1980s.

The Accord established a timetable for the gradual transfer of responsibilities from France to New Caledonia, including a decision in the next five years on the final “sovereign” powers (defence, foreign policy, currency, courts and police).

“This is a crucial period, as the incoming Congress can decide by three-fifths majority to proceed to a referendum on self-determination,” said Maclellan.

“The French State must organise a referendum after June 2018 if the Congress cannot agree on a date – and this timing coincides with proposed changes to the political status of other Melanesian nations like Bougainville.”

The use of a deferred referendum to resolve a serious conflict is highly unusual, says ANU College of Asia and the Pacific academic Anthony Regan.

Aside from New Caledonia, Bougainville is among a handful of countries to have also resorted to the measure in the last half century.

Armed violence between secessionist groups and the Papua New Guinean government over the distribution of mining revenue between 1989 and 1997 led to the signing of an agreement in 2001.

Key to the agreement was a deferment on Bougainville’s independence from Papua New Guinea, to be held between 2015 and 2020.

“That has worked very well,” says Regan, who is based in the College’s State, Society and Governance in Melanesia program.

“That has stopped the conflict, and the referendum has to be held in the next five years.

“The question is whether holding a referendum will be a way out of the conflict?

“Will it provide the next step forward to peaceful relations, or will the pressures involved for the two sides, on this very divisive issue, cause additional strains and perhaps see a break down in relations.

“It could even, in the worst circumstances, see a return to conflict.”

Updated:  11 October, 2013/Responsible Officer:  Web Communications Coordinator/Page Contact:  Web Communications Coordinator