As France’s Overseas Minister Sébastien Lecornu visits Noumea, supporters and opponents of independence are debating whether the next New Caledonia referendum on self-determination should proceed in December.
Key independence parties have long called for the referendum to be held in late 2022 and are pressing Lecornu to defer the poll. Anti-independence politicians believe that the vote should proceed as scheduled, even though campaigning has been disrupted since early September by a surge of Covid-19 cases in the French Pacific dependency.
After previous votes in November 2018 and October 2020, the New Caledonia referendum is scheduled for 12 December. The decision on timing is crucial, as this is the third and final poll under the 1998 framework agreement known as the Noumea Accord. After two close results, with the independence movement edging towards a majority, New Caledonian citizens face a crucial test: whether to vote Yes or No to become an independent and sovereign nation.
Dispute over unilateral decision
The decision on the December date was taken unilaterally by the French government, following discussions at a roundtable in Paris last July. These talks were boycotted by some key politicians, including current President of New Caledonia Louis Mapou, President of the Northern Province Paul Neaoutyine and Senator for New Caledonia Pierre Frogier of the anti-independence Rassemblement party.
At the time, leaders of the largest pro-independence party Union Calédonienne expressed concern the decision about the date was “unilateral” rather than a consensus of the meeting: “The position of the French state does not commit us. It has not been validated by our delegation.”
Overseas Minister Sébastien Lecornu agreed that this was a decision from Paris: “I would like to point out that this date is not the subject of a consensus….It’s not an agreement. It’s an initiative that we are taking within the strict framework of the powers of the French State.”
Even though the referendum is the culmination of more than 20 years transition under the 1998 Noumea Accord, the timing is complicated by France’s domestic electoral cycle. French President Emmanuel Macron is campaigning for re-election in France’s presidential elections in April.
Beyond this, whatever the outcome of the referendum, a subsequent transition period will only last until 30 June 2023. The French government has only allowed 18 months, either to create a new political agreement after a No vote, or – in the case of a Yes majority – to negotiate a new Constitution and economic and security agreements between France and an independent Kanaky New Caledonia.
Since July, both supporters and opponents of independence have launched their referendum campaigns, with most conservative parties joining together as the “Les Voix du Non” alliance. But preparations for the final official campaign have been disrupted by a recent wave of coronavirus infections in New Caledonia.
Due to successful actions since the start of the global pandemic – border controls, quarantine for overseas arrivals, vaccination and more – New Caledonia largely escaped the toll of death and illness seen in France and French Polynesia throughout 2020. But since 6 September this year, there have been 9,977 cases and 241 deaths in a population of nearly 289,000 people. A bulletin from New Caledonia’s official statistics office ISEE reports that “the number of deaths recorded in September 2021, 1.8 times higher than the 2015-2019 average, appears to be quite exceptional.”
On 23 September, the Political Bureau of the main independence coalition Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) issued a public statement calling for the referendum “to be postponed to an opportune date that still needs to be set, until the situation improves and our communities are more serene to express themselves on the future of their country.”
The FLNKS statement said that due to the current wave of COVID-19, “all New Caledonian citizens are not calm enough to participate in a referendum that will affect the future of their country.”
Minister takes the pulse
Over the weekend, the young and ambitious Overseas Minister Sébastien Lecornu held meetings with representatives of the major parliamentary groups in New Caledonia’s Congress. His agenda ranged across the health and economic impacts of the pandemic, options to reopen the community from lockdown and the complex political situation in the lead up to December.
Pierre-Chanel Tutugoro is Secretary General of Union Calédonienne (UC) and told journalists his party reaffirmed the call for delay during Saturday’s dialogue with Minister Lecornu.
“The health crisis has weakened many of our families and challenged our activists about their capacities,” Tutugoro said after the meeting. “Campaigning in the situation today is difficult. Whether you are a partisan of Yes or No, we have everything to lose by wanting to hold this consultation on 12 December at any cost.”
Members of the Union nationale pour indépendance (UNI) parliamentary group, who boycotted last July’s roundtable in Paris, have also told Lecornu that they support a delay in the referendum.
UNI’s Jean-Pierre Djaïwé of the Party of Kanak Liberation (Palika) noted: “UNI’s position is not new. We are opposed to holding this referendum on 12 December …There can be no vote without a campaign. It’s democracy. When we look at the health situation in the country, we told the Minister of our difficulty in being able to reach our communities. At the end of this crisis, we will find a bruised population. It will be difficult for us to reach out to our communities who have something else in mind.”
Other smaller pro-independence groupings, including the Mouvement nationaliste pour la souveraineté de Kanaky (MNSK) and the Mouvement des océaniens indépendantiste (MOI), have also called for a delay of the vote until late 2022.
In contrast, leaders of the main anti-independence coalition Avenir en Confiance (AeC) have criticised the call for a delay. AeC spokesperson Virginie Ruffenach has argued the independence movement is fearful of losing the poll rather than sincerely concerned about the impact of the pandemic. As general secretary of the Rassemblement-les Républicains party, she said that “we must not use this health crisis as a political pretext. I appeal to the separatists: we must meet this deadline.”
Ruffenach said there was no reason to delay the vote, given the current surge of COVID-19 cases has peaked and further delay would dent the confidence of the business community. Despite the need for France to guarantee “the health and human security of this vote”, Ruffenach said it should proceed on 12 December “as a very important democratic event for New Caledonians who must free their horizons.”
After his meeting with Lecornu, the secretary general of the anti-independence party Calédonie ensemble, Philippe Michel, told journalists the decision must be driven by the health indicators, not political posturing.
“If there is an epidemic rebound, too high incidence rates and proven risks on the participation and the sincerity of the ballot, then it will have to be postponed,” said Michel. “We can wait for another three to four weeks, that is to say around 10 November [to set the date]. The real issue now is to carefully monitor the health indicators.”
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