Noumea, New Caledonia- Residents of New Caledonia voted against cutting ties with France on Sunday by a tighter-than-expected margin in the territory’s long-awaited independence referendum.
Local media estimated the final result to be 57 percent to 43 percent in favor of remaining a French overseas territory, with official figures expected to be announced Monday.
Independence has long been a goal of indigenous people in the semi-autonomous territory, who were dispossessed of their traditional lands in 1853 when the French took control of the archipelago.
Voter turnout was almost 80 percent in the referendum, which asked eligible voters: “Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?”
Voters from both sides of the divide were pleasantly surprised by the high turnout, with many saying it reinforced the legitimacy of the result.
“This is a vote for our country’s future so I’m glad people took it seriously,” said Edmond Lecomte, who was watching live results at a viewing party held by the anti-independence group Republicains Caledonie.
Anti-independence supporters said they were relieved by the result.
“We’re not ready for independence,” said Rocky Gutugutuua, who was at the same viewing party. “We’re not ready to manage a country on our own, and the pro-independence groups have not been able to explain how they will.”
But members of the pro-independence movement also celebrated the result with flags and dancing in the street outside the headquarters of a pro-independence party.
Despite losing the overall vote, Jean-Louis Koroma, secretary general of the pro-independence group Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste, said the level of support for independence was higher than anyone was expecting.
“The (French) loyalists said that we would not even be able to win 30 percent of the vote, but we have done so much better than that,” he said. “This is also a victory, in a way.”
Although the majority of voters chose to stay part of France, an agreement drawn up 20 years ago between the French government, pro-independence and French loyalist groups allows for two extra referendums to occur in 2020 and again in 2023, if necessary.
Koroma said that he and other pro-independentists will immediately regroup and start working toward the next referendum.
“This was an important step in the transition, and now we will keep up the momentum for the future,” he said.
Calls for New Caledonia to become a sovereign nation overwhelmingly come from the territory’s indigenous Melanesian people, the Kanaks, who comprise almost 40 percent of the population.
“Throughout the 1970s, New Caledonia watched the winds of liberty going through other Melanesian countries in the Pacific like Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands, so why not us?” Mickel Forrest, permanent secretary for external affairs for pro-independence group Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste, told Kyodo News.
However, unlike neighboring Pacific nations, New Caledonia is a wealthy territory, and its residents enjoy a high standard of living.
In 2017, the territory’s per capita gross national income was almost $33,000, more than 10 times that of Vanuatu, located just to the territory’s north.
New Caledonia’s wealth is partly due to its large nickel reserves, accounting for roughly one-quarter of the world’s supply. Forrest believes income from the nickel industry will be enough to provide for the archipelago’s people.
“There are only 270,000 people (in New Caledonia) and we have three nickel smelters. If there is better sharing of the wealth with indigenous populations, it is possible (to support the whole economy),” the 39-year-old said.
However, Christopher Gyges, campaign chief for Republicains Caledoniens, disagrees.
Gyges believes the quality of life in New Caledonia is overwhelmingly due to France, which provides up to half of New Caledonia’s total budget through both financial aid and in-kind support, such as paying the salaries of all of the territory’s secondary school teachers.
“(Without France) everybody’s standard of living would go down, but especially the poor segment of the population,” Gyges 34, told Kyodo News. “They are the ones who are most dependent on assistance from the government in terms of welfare.”
Gyges explained that as the world nickel market has gradually weakened, New Caledonia has become more dependent on France to support the industry.
“Our major nickel smelter, just outside of town, would probably have had to close down without support from the French government. That would have killed our economy,” he said.
Also of concern to French loyalists is the growing presence of China in the Pacific.
“There’s a severe concern that if France pulls away, China will right away be coming in,” he said, noting with concern rumors that the Vanuatu government had agreed for China to build a military base on the island. Both Vanuatu and China have both denied the speculation.
However, economics aside, the issue of independence lies at the heart of how many Kanaks see their own identity reflected on the national and world stage.
Emmanuel Maureureu-Gion, a 23-year-old Kanak man, said he longs to see the name of the territory changed to Kanaky New Caledonia so the Kanak identity would be better recognized globally.
“In Melanesian tribes, your name is very important. When you meet a Kanak you know from their name who they are, which clan they come from, and so on, so it’s very significant,” he said.
Although the pro-independence group lost the battle for independence on Sunday, the war is yet to be won.
“Kanak is here to stay,” said Koroma.