NOUMÉA, New Caledonia — New Caledonia, a tiny scattering of islands within the South Pacific, won’t mark the brand new 12 months by turning into the world’s latest nation.
In a referendum held on Sunday, voters rejected independence overwhelmingly, with 96 p.c electing to remain a part of France, in accordance with provisional outcomes launched on Sunday night by the French Excessive Fee in New Caledonia.
However whereas the referendum failed, prompting those that voted “non” to fly the French tricolor within the capital, Nouméa, the consequence doesn’t sign an finish to desires of New Caledonian sovereignty.
“We’re pursuing our path of emancipation,” Louis Mapou, New Caledonia’s president, stated in an interview, brushing apart any outcomes of the referendum. “That’s what is crucial.”
Mr. Mapou is the primary pro-independence chief to carry the official title of president in New Caledonia and the primary from the Indigenous Kanak neighborhood that makes up about 40 p.c of the inhabitants. He refers back to the territory as a rustic. (He’s additionally the type of president who chauffeurs himself in a Subaru Forester.)
A big portion of the Kanak pro-independence bloc boycotted Sunday’s vote after their plea for a postponement was rebuffed, resulting in worries that the referendum’s legitimacy was undermined by nonparticipation. President Emmanuel Macron of France, who has made shoring up the nation’s worldwide profile a cornerstone of his marketing campaign for re-election in April, refused a delay.
“France is extra lovely as a result of New Caledonia selected to remain,” Mr. Macron said in a televised statement on Sunday.
With its far-flung island outposts — reminiscent of French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna within the Pacific Ocean, in addition to Mayotte and Réunion within the Indian Ocean — France boasts one of many world’s largest maritime profiles. However the latest collapse of a French submarine cope with Australia, a results of the USA and Britain swooping in as a substitute, embarrassed Paris. Mr. Macron had positioned France as a bulwark towards China, which is increasing its clout within the Indo-Pacific.
“Woe to the small, woe to the remoted, woe to those that will likely be influenced and attacked by hegemonic powers who will come to hunt their fish, their know-how, their financial assets,” he stated in a speech in July in French Polynesia.
Though the “hegemonic energy” remained unnamed, the that means was clear: China.
Sunday’s vote was the third of three independence referendums promised by Paris after years of battle in New Caledonia within the Nineteen Eighties, an rebellion recognized merely as “the Occasions.” Within the second vote final 12 months, 47 p.c selected independence, up from 43 p.c within the first referendum in 2018.
By 5 p.m. on Sunday, voter participation had fallen to 42 p.c, down from 79 p.c through the 2020 referendum. Whereas traces of voters snaked out of polling stations in French loyalist areas of Nouméa and its environs on Sunday morning, they have been just about empty in pro-independence strongholds.
Kanak leaders had urged the French authorities to reschedule Sunday’s referendum for subsequent 12 months as a result of a late-breaking coronavirus wave had disproportionately affected their individuals. Prolonged Kanak mourning traditions, they argued, made political campaigning inconceivable.
“The French state is disrespecting the connection between the Kanak residing and lifeless,” stated Daniel Goa, the top of a pro-independence political celebration. “The decolonization course of goes forward with out respecting the individuals who have to be decolonized.”
The historical past of empire is one among centuries of subjugation, however there are few locations left on this planet the place colonization endures. After annexing New Caledonia in 1853 and establishing a penal colony, the French pressured the Kanaks off their fertile tribal lands and onto reservations. The French brutally crushed Kanak efforts to repel them.
With the invention of nickel, the French administration introduced in laborers from Asia and different elements of the Pacific to work the mines, which stay the territory’s greatest financial driver. Battle and overseas illnesses exacted a lethal toll on the Kanaks, whose inhabitants plunged by about half inside three-quarters of a century. At this time, with an inflow of French crowding Nouméa — civil servants can earn salaries double that of again in France — the Kanaks are a minority of their homeland.
To organize for the referendum on Sunday, 1000’s of French safety forces descended on the territory of 270,000 individuals. The aftermath of the final referendum devolved into violence, with Kanak youth setting fireplace to nickel mine amenities and blockading main thoroughfares.
“Half the nation is for independence and half is towards it,” stated Charles Wea, a presidential adviser stated earlier than the votes have been counted. “We’ve got to rebuild a brand new social contract. In any other case, we are going to all the time be divided.”
New Caledonia is the one place in Melanesia, an arc of islands that stretches from Papua New Guinea to Fiji, that continues to be below colonial management. Neighboring Vanuatu gained independence in 1980, the Solomon Islands two years earlier than that.
French loyalists argue that New Caledonia’s privileged financial place — its per capita G.D.P. would rank it among the many high 20 richest international locations if it have been thought of a rustic — is afforded by its standing as a French territory. Subsidies from Paris fill New Caledonia’s coffers, and the territory’s wealth doubled over the previous three many years.
Ought to New Caledonia ultimately change into unbiased, the territory would commerce France’s geopolitical affect for that of China, which has prolonged its attain over Melanesia, French loyalists say. Final month, fatal riots shook the Solomon Islands, with the prime minister blaming the violence on the swap of diplomatic allegiance to China from Taiwan, the self-governing democracy that’s Beijing’s political rival.
“Whenever you take a look at France and China, it’s completely completely different relating to human rights,” stated Christopher Gygès, an anti-independence politician who additionally serves as New Caledonia’s minister for the financial system, overseas commerce and power. “France’s presence will defend us from China’s urge for food and efforts to take management of the area.”
Mr. Mapou, the president, has held open the likelihood that an unbiased New Caledonia would entrust its protection to France, permitting Paris to take care of a regional stronghold.
“We will steadiness,” he stated. “We could be within the Pacific, defend our pursuits, and preserve a hyperlink with France and Europe due to historical past and tradition.”
Drawn by New Caledonia’s local weather and cozy residing, the inhabitants of Métros, as latest arrivals from France are recognized, has elevated sharply in a technology. The middle of Nouméa is essentially a white city of baguettes and leisurely video games of pétanque. New Caledonia’s wealth is concentrated within the Southern Province, the place Nouméa is. Even the New Caledonian authorities will get its workplace house from the province, which is ruled by a white chief.
Regardless of New Caledonia’s prosperity, earnings disparities yawn broad. Kanaks make up the overwhelming majority of the territory’s impoverished, unemployed and imprisoned. Regardless of authorities efforts to assist Kanaks pursue larger training in France, there are few Kanak docs, legal professionals and engineers.
In a sprawl of dilapidated backed housing in Magenta, a neighborhood in Nouméa, Jeremy Hnalep, 25, stated he drew little hope from politics. The buildings’ lobbies reeked of urine; clumps of younger individuals handed round hashish, which is illegitimate in New Caledonia.
“The one alternative is to reside outdoors the system as a result of the system won’t change even when there’s independence,” Mr. Hnalep stated.
Kanak politicians estimate that unemployment amongst Kanak youth exceeds 40 p.c.
In villages outdoors Nouméa, the colourful flag of Kanaky, as Kanaks name the land, flutters from market stalls and fishing boats. It flies over funerals and weddings, Catholic feast days and labor strikes. The French flag is never seen.
But on the eve of the vote, whilst she acknowledged the colonial burden on the Kanaks, Anne-Marie Kourévi, the 81-year-old spouse of a Kanak tribal chief in southern New Caledonia, stated she would vote “oui.”
“I’m French,” she stated, “and I’ve been for greater than 80 years.”
Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting from Paris.