A third referendum on independence from France looms in New Caledonia unless talks over the next six months satisfy the aspirations of the Kanak people for more self-rule.
The French Overseas Minister Sebastien Lecornu is due in New Caledonia this weekend to gauge the positions of local politicians while Paris calibrates its options to retain its foothold in Melanesia, Radio New Zealand has reported.
The Noumea Accord provides for a third and final referendum in two years after last week’s rejection of full sovereignty.
Just over 53 per cent voted for the status quo at the weekend but it meant a further decline for the French loyalist camp which as recently as two years ago was told by pollsters that it had 70 per cent support.
Going to a third referendum in 2022 – as is possible under the Noumea Accord – means more political tension and according to the president of the Southern province Sonia Backes, it even bears the risk of a civil war.
According to Les Nouvelles Caledoniennes, a former minister has proposed a mission be planned headed by a former prime minister, either Manuel Valls or Edouard Philippe.
Valls is quoted as saying there couldn’t be a third referendum without a clearer definition of the consequences of such a vote.
The pro-independence camp said it intends to follow the Noumea Accord and opt for a third referendum.
The anti-independence camp, which is split over internal rivalries, campaigned with two approaches.
A group calling themselves the Loyalists, pushed a winner-takes-it-all line, avoiding dialogue while warning of economic pitfalls of independence.
The New Caledonia Together party, however, viewed the latest referendum as an unnecessary exercise because it only hardened positions when a mutually acceptable way forward needed to be found.
On television, a senior party member said: “We at Caledonia Together believe that it is possible to conjoin sovereignty and being in a republic instead of opposing sovereignty and the republic.
“We believe that it is possible to have a statute in New Caledonia under which there is a shared sovereignty,” he said.
A month ago the Loyalists said that instead of a third referendum a new deal should be put to voters in 2022 which could make New Caledonia a constitutionally guaranteed part of the French republic.
Their plan would end the concept of a New Caledonian citizenship conferred to indigenous Kanaks and long-term residents who are currently the only people allowed to vote in the referendums.
This would grant about 40,000 mainly French residents, or about a fifth of the population, voting rights which they don’t have under the terms of the Noumea Accord.
In his address on Sunday night, President Emmanuel Macron confirmed that he would comply with the constitutionally guaranteed Noumea Accord and, if so wanted, organise a third referendum.
However Macron also said ultimately the transitional provisions enshrined in the constitution must either give way to lasting provisions or be withdrawn.
The pro-independence camp appeared to be unperturbed by the two referendum losses.
A signatory to the Noumea Accord back in 1998 and now president of New Caledonia’s Congress, Roch Wamytan, remains adamant that the decolonisation process has to result in independence.
The next referendum can at the earliest be called in April, giving French and pro-French New Caledonian leaders six months to lay out a path to change Wamytan’s mind.