On Sunday 4 October, people in the French South Pacific territory of New Caledonia will vote in a second referendum on whether to break away after almost 170 years. Two years ago they voted to remain part of France, so has anything changed this time round?
More than 180,000 long-term residents of New Caledonia are registered to vote “Yes” or “No” to the question: “Do you want New Caledonia to gain its full sovereignty and become independent?”.
When asked exactly the same question in the first referendum two years ago 56.7 percent voted to remain within the French Republic, despite it being some 17,000km away.
But opinion polls had predicted a crushing defeat for the pro-independence camp and their surprisingly strong result was a shock for France.
Why another referendum and why now?
This is the second of up to three referendums agreed as part of the 1998 Nouméa Accord, signed between the French government, the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) and anti-independence leaders.
The Accord was aimed at putting New Caledonia on the path of decolonisation after years of bloody conflict in the 1980s between pro-independence indigenous Kanak and the descendants of European settlers known as “Caldoches”.
It allowed for long-term residents to vote on New Caledonia’s future political status and the transfer of sovereign powers concerning defence, foreign policy, police, courts and currency.
Who is voting?
Some 180,640 people are enrolled, the equivalent of two inhabitants out of three.
The bulk of New Caledonia’s population is made up of the indigenous Melanesians (37 percent) and Caldoches (27 percent).
Eleven percent are migrants from other Pacific islands such as Tahiti, Wallis and Futuna and Vanuatu.
How’s the campaign going?
Six political groups are campaigning: UC- FLNKS, the Parti Travailliste and Uni are in favour of independence, while “Loyalists” 1 and 2 and “Caledonia Together” are against.
The campaign has been fiercer and more tense than two years ago, with little dialogue between the two sides.
A special authorisation allowing the French tricolour to be used in campaign spots has angered the pro-independence FLNKS which accuses the French government of taking sides against independence.
Loyalist parties argue that rules restricting the right to vote in the referendum – which have led to some 34,000 people being struck off the lists – give an advantage to the pro-independence campaign.
Which side is likely to win?
In 2018, pollsters predicted a much bigger win for the Loyalists than turned out to be the case. No opinion polls have been made public this time.
However, many political observers feel the Yes vote is unlikely to come out on top.
“I would be surprised if the Yes vote won,” said Pierre-Christophe Pantz, a Noumea-based expert in geopolitics.
But Mathias Chauchat, a law professor at the University of New Caledonia and supporter of independence was more upbeat.
“I have never seen such fervour, such willingness to gather and participate,” he told RFI. “There is a feeling that victory is within reach.”
Loyalists have played the anxiety card with the message that “Yes to independence would signify the end of economic prosperity and security,” observed RFI’s correspondent in Nouméa.
That’s far from clear.
New Caledonia has the 4th biggest nickel reserves in the world. But equally, the French government subsidises the territory with some €1.5 billion every year, the equivalent of more than 15 percent of New Caledonia’s gross domestic product.
What factors might change the 2018 result?
The gap between the two camps could narrow depending on whether the 33,000 or so people who abstained in 2018 come out and vote.
Loyalists are hoping that 2018’s closer than predicted result will convince people they can’t afford to abstain.
But turnout could also be boosted within the independence movement.
In 2018, smaller groups like the left-wing Labour party and USTKE trade union confederation called on their members not to vote in the referendum arguing the colonised Kanak people alone should vote. But this year they are campaigning for a Yes vote.
There’s also been a shift among some of the migrant populations from islands like Wallis and Futuna.
While the large Wallisian community has traditionally supported the anti-independence parties, Eveil océanien, set up shortly after the first referendum, has left Polynesians to make up their own mind on how to vote rather than follow the European-dominated Loyalist alliance.
What happens if the ‘Yes’ vote wins?
If New Caledonia votes for independence, France would, after a transition period, hand over control.
Paris would stop paying its yearly €1.5 billion annual subsidy, though a new system of development aid would be put in place.
If independence is rejected, the status quo will continue. The Nouméa Accord allows for a third referendum, to be held by 2022.
Whether the vote is yes or no “a not insignificant part of the population, essentially Kanak, will continue to be deeply attached to independence”, Pierre-Christophe Pantz wrote on the site Outremers 360.
Where does Paris stand?
Officially the French government is neutral on the referendum. Prime minister Jean Castex announced as much on 29 September.
But contrary to 2018 when then prime minister Edouard Philippe and Emmanuel Macron both visited the archipelago, French officials have been few and far between of late.
New Caledonians “feel slightly abandoned”, Chachut says.
In a recent ministers' council, government spokesperson Gabriel Attal said that “whatever the result of the referendum”, President Macron would make a speech in Paris when the results are announced.
He also said there would most likely be “third referendum”, suggesting the No vote was once more expected to come out on top.