New Caledonia to vote on independence
Just over 16,700km from Paris, nearly three-hour flight east of Australia, the islands have secured more autonomy amid growing calls for independence by the indigenous Kanak population.
Around 174,000 registered voters can take part in the second referendum on New Caledonia’s status after a 1987 vote which was widely boycotted by the Kanaks, resulting in more than 98 per cent opting to remain with France.
Polls suggest between 69 per cent and 75 per cent will vote against independence and that pro-independence strongholds in the north and on its satellite islands, where Kanaks are the majority, will not be enough to overcome the loyalist south.
“The public mood in [the capital] Noumea is pretty quiet,” Professor Catherine Ris, an economist at the University of New Caledonia.
“Political parties and people involved in the parties are campaigning and excited to defend their opinions. There are lots of meetings, posters in the streets and sheets of fabric printed with the red, blue and green of the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front flag are hooked on trees on the roadsides all around the country.”
Croissants are served for breakfast, crepes for lunch and in the afternoons people play bowls in shady squares. The islanders drive on the right, speak French and the fringe of Noumea has numerous hypermarchés.
About 27 per cent of archipelago’s population of 279,000 is of European – mainly French – descent, and 39 per cent are indigenous. The rest of the population are from elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region.
Divisions remain between French loyalists and a pro-independence movement demanding self-determination.
The Kanaks have complained that they were being displaced from their lands and about Paris’ encouragement of European migration, as Kanaks struggle to get educated and find work.
Profits from Thio’s nickel mine have failed to enrich the town, despite New Caledonia being the world’s third-largest nickel producer with markets in Canada, China and Europe.
Christian Bull, a farmer from Thio and a descendant of New Caledonia’s early colonial settlers, asked: “Where is the money from the mine that can help us out of this dire situation?”
His small farm also accommodates out-of-town workers from the mine.
“The youth here have no other aspirations than to leave Thio and head to the capital Noumea to make a living,” said Bull, adding that they often fail to succeed in the city.
Noumea. Picture credit: Flickr