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By Walter Zweifel, RNZ Pacific reporter

A third referendum on independence from France looms in New Caledonia unless talks over the next six months satisfy the aspirations of the Kanak people for more self-rule.

On Saturday, the French Overseas Minister Sebastien Lecornu is due in New Caledonia to gauge the positions of local politicians while Paris calibrates its options to retain its foothold in Melanesia.

On arrival, Lecornu will have to spend two weeks in quarantine in covid-19-free New Caledonia while the territory recovers from a bruising referendum campaign and digests the result.

Just over 53 percent voted for the status quo but it meant a further decline for the French loyalist camp which as recently as two years ago was told by pollsters that it had 70 percent support.

Going to a third referendum in 2022 – as is possible under the Noumea Accord – means more political tension and according to the president of the Southern province Sonia Backes, it even bears the risk of a civil war.

All the while, those on the losing side of the referendum insist on their right as the colonised people to regain control of their homeland.

Independence ‘cannot be denied’
Bilo Railati of the small Labour Party said independence could not be denied.

“I would like to say here, and I hope it is understood, that the Kanak people will never mourn its independence,” he told television viewers.

The decolonisation process launched at the United Nations in 1986 has seen two major accords since 1988, first the Matignon Accords and then the 1998 Noumea Accord.

They framed a peaceful coexistence for three decades but failed to unite the communities for the much vaunted common destiny.

Among the ongoing upheaval in the all important nickel sector, growing worry about public finances as well as inequality and crime the independence question is just one additional challenge.

Tension was heightened by the divisive referendum question which Paris had chosen two years ago.

This was acknowledged by Lecornu when he was asked on French radio.

“This binary question of a yes or no to independence is not the answer to all the questions raised in society today,” he said.

Anti-independence camp split
The anti-independence camp, which is split over internal rivalries, campaigned with two approaches.

A grouping of six parties, calling themselves the “Loyalists”, pushed a winner-takes-it-all line, avoiding dialogue while warning of economic pitfalls of independence.

The New Caledonia Together party, however, viewed the latest referendum as an unnecessary exercise because it only hardened positions when a mutually acceptable way forward needed to be found.

On television, a senior party member and former provincial president Philippe Michel restated his vision.

“We at Caledonia Together believe that it is possible to conjoin sovereignty and being in a republic instead of opposing sovereignty and the republic. We believe that it is possible to have a statute in New Caledonia under which there is – as already in some spheres – a shared sovereignty,” he said.

Already a month ago the Loyalists said that instead of a third referendum a new deal should be put to voters in 2022 which could make New Caledonia a constitutionally guaranteed part of the French republic.

Their plan would end the concept of a New Caledonian citizenship conferred to indigenous Kanaks and long-term residents who are currently the only people allowed to vote in the referendums.

Voting rights for French residents
This would also grant about 40,000 mainly French residents, or about a fifth of the population, voting rights which they do not have under the terms of the Noumea Accord.

Last week, pro-independence parties proposed a law to ban foreigners from buying existing real estate – a move, which would also apply to the French residents ineligible to be New Caledonian citizens.

A group representing them, One Heart One Vote, plans to challenge this in the European Human Rights Court, describing it as discriminatory.

In his address on Sunday night, President Emmanuel Macron confirmed that he would comply with the constitutionally guaranteed Noumea Accord and, if so wanted, organise a third referendum.

However, Macron also said ultimately the transitional provisions enshrined in the constitution must either give way to lasting provisions or be withdrawn.

According to Professor Mathias Chauchat of the University of New Caledonia, the implication is that France no longer intends to respect constitutional irreversibility, which implicitly means a new unilateral status and the enlargement of the electorate to include all the French.

Macron also called on French national political forces to draw up their vision of New Caledonia’s future.

New mission planned
Now according to Les Nouvelles Caledoniennes, a former minister has proposed that a mission be planned headed by a former prime minister, either Manuel Valls or Edouard Philippe.

Lecornu said there would be either another referendum or a vote on a new arrangement.

“In both cases there will be a moment when the Noumea Accord ends and something new needs to be imagined,” he said.

While French politicians expressed confidence that New Caledonia would remain tied to France, they largely oppose a third referendum.

Consolidating the French presence is last month’s appointment of the first ever ambassador in charge of the Indo-Pacific.

The Paris-based diplomat will begin his job next week and is expected to liaise along the Indo-Pacific axis outlined by Macron which extends via India and Australia to New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

Pro-independence camp unperturbed
The pro-independence camp appeared to be unperturbed by the two referendum losses.

A signatory to the Noumea Accord back in 1998 and now president of New Caledonia’s Congress, Roch Wamytan, was adamant that the decolonisation process has to result in independence.

To get there, he wanted to adhere to what was decided from the very start of he process.

“We are not hesitating to say that we are going to a third referendum because we have so decided,” he said

Should decolonisation fail, the pro-independence side has already said it will seek direct bilateral talks with Paris.

The next referendum can at the earliest be called in April, giving French and pro-French New Caledonian leaders six months to lay out a path to change Wamytan’s mind.

This article is republished by the Pacific Media Centre under a partnership agreement with RNZ.

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