29 Aug 2017

New Caledonia group draws up independence plan

12:39 pm on 29 August 2017

New Caledonia's pro-independence FLNKS movement has firmed up its draft plan on how an independent New Caledonia should be shaped.

Kanak and French flags on Ouvea island.

Kanak and French flags on Ouvea island. Photo: AFP

A weekend meeting heard back from territory-wide consultations as preparations continue for next year's independence referendum.

When in the South Pacific one colony after another became an independent country, New Caledonia's Kanaks missed out on regaining control of their destiny.

Years of intermittent unrest ensued and they ended with first the 1988 Matignon Accords and in 1998 the Noumea Accord - the road map guaranteed by France to lead to an independence referendum due next year.

When the 20-year plan was signed, Roch Wamytan did so for the FLNKS and announced that this was the first step towards independence.

"Independence is not 20 years away - it starts being built from today," he said.

Roch Wamytan

Roch Wamytan Photo: AFP

The Noumea Accord provides for a phased and gradual transfer of powers from France to New Caledonia.

Part of this process has been completed but key functions are still exercised by France, notably in terms of security and justice.

Nineteen years on from signing the Accord, the FLNKS has outlined what it thinks an independent 'Kanaky-Nouvelle Caledonie' should look like.

Its project is to create a multi-cultural and democratic nation.

It wants to redefine the Congress as the new country's parliament and set up an electoral college to choose a president.

This is modelled on the restricted body used currently to choose politicians for seats in the French Senate.

The FLNKS also proposes making its own flag the country's official flag.

This goes to the nub of the people's identity and to date it has been the most difficult and contested measure to forge a "common destiny".

New Caledonia

New Caledonia Photo: RNZ Pacific

Flag competitions in the last decade were muted when the then French prime minister Francois Fillon in 2010 approved an apparent compromise by officially hoisting both the separatist Kanak flag and the French tricolore in Noumea.

Loyalists opposed to the gesture pointed to a violation of the Noumea Accord, precipitating a prolonged government crisis that brought down the administration three times within months.

The fall-out from the flag debate was only contained when Paris changed the electoral law to halt the serial resignations.

The current FLNKS plan is to have as citizens of the new republic all the people who are on the restricted rolls for the referendum and the territorial election.

Carvings in New Caledonia

Carvings in New Caledonia Photo: AFP

The roll, however, is contentious.

Last month, thousands took to the streets of Noumea to back their demand that all Kanaks be automatically registered - a request that defies French law.

At the weekend meeting, one of the delegates Aloisio Sako told the public broadcaster about the problem.

"A stumbling block of all the talks could be over the demand that all Kanaks are automatically enrolled - and here we are awaiting a decision from the French court," he said.

This is echoed by another Noumea Accord signatory Louis Kotra-Uregei, who is the leader of the small Labour Party.

And in an interview on television on Sunday, he also insisted that all Kanaks must be enrolled.

"We remain the colonised people and the self-determination vote concerns first of all us. All Kanaks must be called at the right time and have to be on the list," he said.

He went on to say that thousands of settlers in mainly the Noumea area are on the restricted electoral roll illegally.

"There is a fraud which has been legalised at the level of the mayors by the vote of the special administrative commission charged with controls," he said.

Mr Kotra Uregei says if the abuse is not cleared up there is every chance of a boycott of the referendum.

New Caledonia's Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre meets the outer Noumea skyline.

New Caledonia's Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre meets the outer Noumea skyline. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

In 1987, a French-sponsored independence referendum was boycotted by the Kanaks which led to a 98.3 percent vote in favour of staying with France.

That result didn't sit well and tensions and violence continued until the signing of the landmark Matignon Accords by the veteran leader Jacques Lafleur and Jean-Marie Tjibaou of the FLNKS.

Ten years later Mr Lafleur was convinced that at the expiry of the Noumea Accord, New Caledonia would remain French.

"I'm convinced that in 20 years, the Caledonians will choose to remain within the Republic," he said.

In the following years, he distanced himself from wanting a referendum - a position regularly repeated by some loyalist politicians.

Fearing possible independence, voices are being raised within the loyalist camp suggesting France may no longer stand up for the territory.

Insecurity has been fuelled by speculation that one option is to make New Caledonia an associated state.

Philippe Gomes

Philippe Gomes Photo: AFP

Philippe Gomes of the anti-independence Caledonia Together Party has argued that there has been an informed referendum, saying it is pointless to have what he terms a frontal vote without fleshing out the options are after the vote.

At the right fringe of politics, there have been repeated calls to hold the vote as soon as possible.

The argument was that the sooner the independence aspirations were quelled the better.

However, the option to organise a vote from 2014 onward has not been exercised and all signs are now that the vote will be held next year.

The French state has consistently professed that it will adhere to the Noumea Accord which expires with the independence vote.

This means if New Caledonians don't organise the referendum, the French state will.

The signatories to the Noumea Accord are due to meet in Paris in late October, for a last time, to finalise the framework for the referendum process.

People take part in a demonstration on April 24, 2015 in Noumea, New-Caledonia, called by two right wing UMP affiliated parties to codemn the French Governemnt policy about New-Caledonia forced march towards independance.

Right-wing parties rally in Noumea against New Caledonia's possible independence and the Socialist government in France Photo: AFP

At that meeting the FLNKS plans to table its plans for an independent Kanaky.

But the plan's relevance is in doubt as a recent opinion poll suggests the anti-independence camp will win.

The French state is aware of the security challenges posed by the referendum.

One big question for the FLNKS is what future is there for an independence movement if voters after decades of weighing up the benefits and drawbacks of going it alone decide that they don't want independence.

And, more pertinently, what will Kanak radicals do if the decolonisation process ends with New Caledonia - in their eyes - remaining a colony.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs