19 Oct 2017

Uncertainty remains over New Caledonia referendum roll

6:52 am on 19 October 2017

A year out from New Caledonia's independence referendum, it is still unclear who will be allowed to vote.

A similar referendum was held during the tumultuous 1980s but the indigenous people boycotted it, which exacerbated tensions between the Kanaks and French loyalists.

Kanak and French flags on Ouvea island.

Kanak and French flags on Ouvea island. Photo: AFP

Since then two major accords between the rival camps have stabilised the political scene, with the 1998 Noumea Accord providing the decolonisation roadmap to next year's vote.

Challenges to finalise the electoral roll remain, which legal scholar Mathias Chauchat is watching closely.

"The problem is that a large part of the Kanak population is not enrolled. They represent 22,000 people out of 92000 - which is substantial," he said.

Mathias Chauchat is a professor of Public Law at the University of New Caledonia and an expert on the legal and constitutional complexities which govern the French territory's electorate.

Mathias Chauchat

Mathias Chauchat Photo: Calédosphère

To accommodate the peculiar situation in New Caledonia, France's constitution was changed and voting rights have been split, creating three different rolls, one specifically for the referendum.

If you want to vote in the referendum you have to be on the general roll first but many Kanaks aren't because after a century of being disenfranchised, many Kanaks never bothered to enrol and engage in politics.

"The anti-independence side plays the equity card, saying everybody born in New Caledonia, irrespective of ethnicity, should be treated the same way. But that is not what is said in the Noumea Accord. The Noumea Accord provides for the Kanaks holding customary status to be all inscribed on the roll used for the referendum because it is after all a decolonisation vote which seemed logical," Mr Chauchat said.

The Kanaks insist that France should enlist them automatically as they were given voting rights and customary status in the 1950s abolishing years of forced labour and other restrictions under French colonial rule.

Now with a quarter of the potential Kanak voters outside the system, any referendum result could be tinged with a lack of legitimacy.

So in recent weeks, France has looked at the question of automatic enrolment after being approached by the prime minister.

Carvings in Isle of Pines, New Caledonia

Carvings in Isle of Pines, New Caledonia Photo: AFP

And Mr Chauchat said the Supreme Administrative Court found it could be done.

"If you enrol those born in New Caledonia on the general roll automatically, the Kanaks will automatically go on the roll for the referendum and they would have to make no declaration. Then there would finally be complete rolls in New Caledonia."

"On the other hand, the other people born in New Caledonia, who don't have customary status, including Kanaks who don't have customary status, would have to make a declaration to prove their material and moral interests," he said.

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 the beginning of November, the signatories to the Noumea Accord will have their last meeting in Paris under the chairmanship of the French prime minister and they'll have to determine who gets to vote in the referendum.

"I believe in Paris they will want to find a solution because there is a risk that the vote will be challenged. The paradox is that it has been known for almost 20 years that there will be a vote and one year out from the referendum there is still no agreement about the make-up of the roll. This shows a lack of preparation on part of the French state and that is why I think they will want to find a solution," Mr Chauchat said.

The Kanaks are planning another rally in Noumea next week to push for automatic enrolment.

No referendum date has been set but it has to be held by November next year.