New Caledonia, a strategic French archipelago of 270,000 inhabitants in the South Pacific, held its breath on Sunday, awaiting the results of the second referendum on independence, marked by an unprecedented mobilization, far greater than that of the first poll two years ago.
The 304 polling stations closed at 6:00 p.m. local time (3:00 a.m.Montreal time). The final results should not be known for several hours.
Emmanuel Macron is due to speak at 1 p.m. (7 a.m. Montreal time), from the Élysée. In May 2018, he stressed that “France would be less beautiful without New Caledonia”.
Nearly 180,598 voters from this French archipelago, colonized in 1853 and having significant nickel reserves, were invited to answer the question: “do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?”
A first referendum, organized on November 4, 2018, saw the “no” win at 56.7%, a result tighter than expected.
On Sunday, one hour before the close of offices, the turnout was 79.63%, 6 points more than in the first referendum, according to the High Commission.
According to historian Paul Fizin, this mobilization could benefit both camps. In 2018, some loyalists, persuaded to win easily by the polls, had not come. At the same time, in the Loyalty Islands, a Kanak stronghold, the main indigenous ethnic group, abstention was also noticeable, because of the call for non-participation of the Labor Party, established in this region.
In the streets of Noumea and in working-class neighborhoods with a Kanak majority, the separatists have largely shown their enthusiasm for this election throughout the day with concerts of uninterrupted horns and parades of flags.
In this territory 18,000 km from Paris, which represents one of the last bastions of European sovereignty in the area, it sometimes took several hours in the morning to queue up to slip your ballot into the ballot box.
This was particularly the case in a polling station in the popular Kanak district of Montravel, north of Nouméa.
“I arrived at 8:30 am and it is 11:00 am, we have not returned yet, but for the dignity of the country, we are waiting,” explains Chanié, Kanak from Lifou, in an orange dress and a corn leaf headdress.
“My choice is yes, because I want those who are going to lead our country, to be our children, and not France,” she continued.
Daniela was waiting at 7:30 am in front of the polling stations set up in the Vallée des Colons, a multiethnic district of Nouméa.
“I vote no because France has always been there for us, it will remain so, I hope,” she added.
Not all the inhabitants of Caillou can express themselves: the electorate of this sensitive ballot is conditioned on several criteria. It is necessary, among other things, to justify a continuous residence in New Caledonia since at least December 31, 1994, to be a native of the archipelago or to have customary Kanak civil status.
Christophe, 57, whose parents and grandparents were born on Le Caillou, came with his whole family.
“Each voice counts”, insists this Caldoche, for whom “New Caledonia is not ready to be financially independent”.
“I hear the arguments which say that it is dangerous economically”, but “I will vote yes”, explains Guillaume Berger, another Caldoche.
“Our presence here will be called into question if we are not able to build independence with the Kanaks”, he adds.
The consultation took place without barrier or mask measures, since the archipelago is free of COVID-19, thanks to a drastic reduction in international flights and a mandatory quarantine for all arrivals.
This referendum, like the first, is part of a decolonization process started in 1988 by the Matignon accords, signed by the Kanak independentist Jean-Marie Tjibaou and the loyalist Jacques Lafleur, after several years of virtual civil war between Kanaks , first people, and Caldoches, of European origin.
These clashes culminated in the taking of hostages and the assault on Ouvéa cave in May 1988 (25 dead).
These agreements, consolidated ten years later by the Noumea agreement, established an economic and geographic rebalancing in favor of the Kanaks and a sharing of political power, even if social inequalities remain significant.
Observers consider a “yes” victory unlikely, but do not rule out its progression.
In the event of a “no” victory, a third referendum is possible by 2022, an option that the loyalists already refuse, but that the separatists say they want to implement.