March 16, 2017 10:00 am JST

Tensions rise in New Caledonia as it mulls a break with France

Bougainville and Guam are also moving toward referendums on constitutional status

MICHAEL FIELD, Contributing writer

New Caledonia's Ouaieme River opens into the bay of the same name. © Getty Images

AUCKLAND Due east of Australia, the Pacific island of New Caledonia is mulling a final break from France, ending a relationship lasting more than 150 years. In a referendum that will take place next year, islanders will vote on the issue of independence.

The wording of the referendum question to be asked has not been determined, and neither has the eligible electorate. Tensions have been building, prompting Paris to dispatch 50 additional security officers to the territory. They arrived in February, but attacks on police have continued, wounding three and drawing condemnation from authorities.

Sonia Backes, a senior pro-French politician in New Caledonia, has been critical of what she sees as Paris' soft line. This month she demanded the prosecution of an indigenous politician who called whites in New Caledonia "immigrants."

"UNBEARABLE REMARKS" "These remarks are unbearable," she said, adding that those who say such things should be prosecuted for "inciting racial hatred."

New Caledonia, a self-governing island with a population of 260,000, has been ruled by France since 1853, but communal relations have been repeatedly scarred by failed revolts and violence between the indigenous inhabitants, known as Kanaks, and French settlers.

A 1987 referendum asked whether the territory should remain part of France. However, it was boycotted by the pro-independence group Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste after Paris refused to allow U.N. supervision of the vote. Only 1.7% of voters backed independence then.

Tensions continued to rise, and a year later FLNKS activists killed four French police and took 27 others hostage, together with a prosecutor and seven soldiers. A government-ordered assault freed the hostages, but 19 activists and two soldiers were killed.

Last November, Manuel Valls, then France's prime minister, acknowledged the increasing tensions and promised better security, but noted, "Even if we do everything we can to avoid it, we anticipate that the future will involve ... hazards and risks."

Kanaks, who have lived on New Caledonia for 3,500 years, make up 39% of the population, according to a 2014 census. Europeans comprise 27%, and 9% identify as "Caledonian" but are mostly ethnically European. Most of the rest are from France's other Pacific territories, French Polynesia, and Wallis and Futuna.

Union Caledonienne, the main backer of independence, contends that voter registration procedures disenfranchise many Kanaks while allowing shorter-term migrants onto the electoral roll. Its demand for systematic and unconditional registration of all Kanaks has been rejected by France. Anti-independence activists, some of whom have accused Paris of trying to push away the territory, say that no one should be registered to vote involuntarily.

Pierre Frogier, a leader of the anti-independence Rassemblement movement and member of the French Senate, is opposed to a simple referendum question on independence, saying it would "result in the fragmentation of New Caledonian society and the incitement of Caledonians to fight."

Opponents of independence have organized rallies with thousands of demonstrators and control 29 of 54 democratically elected seats in the territory's legislature. The remaining 25 members are split between those who favor independence and a group advocating a looser relationship with France.

Paul Soyez, a researcher in French-Australian relations at Paris-Sorbonne University and the University of Melbourne, said the wording of the referendum question was a serious problem and that the risk of violence was "quite high."

"The whole issue is to know how to phrase a question that will not be black and white but that will enable voters to choose between several forms of autonomy," he said.

Soyez said the prospect of violent clashes was "a real concern here in Australia, since stakeholders in Canberra don't know who Australian public opinion would support, France or Kanaks, and then who they would have to defend."

David Chappell, a University of Hawaii professor who has studied the island, said there was little direct dialogue between French loyalists and independence supporters and noted that divisions were emerging within both groups.

Chappell, author of "The Kanak Awakening," predicted the loyalists would win a vote on independence, but forecast that the territory would shift closer to sovereignty over the next generation. "In a sense, the process of nation building is not suffering fragmentation of the old ethnopolitical blocs ... as much as it is diversifying within a still-vague concept of nationhood," he said.

MORE SEPARATION TALK New Caledonia isn't the only Pacific island debating self-determination.

Papua New Guinea agreed on Jan. 24 to allow a referendum on independence on June 15, 2019, in Bougainville, an autonomous island with extensive mining resources troubled by separatist violence in the 1980s and 1990s.

In Guam, a U.S. territory midway between Papua New Guinea and Japan, Republican Gov. Eddie Calvo aims to hold a U.N.-supervised referendum soon. A 1982 referendum saw 49% of voters back the island changing its U.S. status from being an unincorporated territory into a commonwealth against five other options. But even after another vote in 1987, the status of Guam, which hosts one of the largest American military bases in the Pacific, has remained unchanged.

As planned, only the 37% of Guam's 165,000 residents who are indigenous Chamorro would be allowed to vote in the next referendum, though the referendum question itself has not been defined. However, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood ruled on March 8 that excluding non-Chamorros constituted racial discrimination.

Calvo expressed disappointment about the disruption to his referendum plan. "I have stated time and time again that the people of Guam deserve to have their voices heard -- and what more important issue that we have a say in than the future of our island, our government and our children," he said. His administration plans to appeal the court decision.

There is also talk of separation within the Federated States of Micronesia, between Guam and Papua New Guinea. The state of Chuuk considered a break-away referendum in 2016 before backing away from the idea. In the aftermath of local elections on March 7, it is not yet clear whether the issue may be revived.

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