AS New Caledonia’s FLNKS independence movement met in congress last month near the northern town of Poum, the theme highlighted the importance of the coming year: “Yet Tim Men Ta Yabwat” (At the dawn of a new day). After decades of campaigning, a decision on New Caledonia’s political status is looming.
The exact date is still to be announced, but New Caledonia’s referendum on self-determination must be held before the end of the year, after a 20-year transition established by the 1998 Noumea Accord. Opponents of independence believe that they will win the vote and retain their current status within the French Republic. After generations of settlement and migration, the indigenous Kanak people are a minority in their own country, so mobilising independence supporters in the lead up to the referendum is all the more important. The 36th Congress of the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) met at Arama on 3-4 February.
The meeting provided a crucial opportunity for delegates and activists to build common understanding on issues that have long been debated within the broad independence coalition. For many years, there have been internal tensions over leadership, how to negotiate with conservative pro-French parties and the best path for a transition to a new political status. But with only months remaining until the referendum, there is a need to promote unity amongst the four political parties that comprise the FLNKS: Union Calédonienne (UC); Parti de Libération Kanak (Palika); Rassemblement Démocratique Océanien (RDO); and Union Progressiste Mélanésien (UPM). The first President of the FLNKS, JeanMarie Tjibaou, was assassinated in 1989 and the position was later filled by Palika’s Paul Neaoutyine and UC’s Roch Wamytan. But since 2001, the independence coalition has been unable to agree on a President.
To avoid potentially divisive debates over leadership, the Arama Congress decided to leave the position vacant and instead appointed UC President Daniel Goa as its official spokesperson within New Caledonia, the region and internationally. Debating the path forward As the largest and oldest member of the independence movement, UC has long called for the adoption of full, sovereign political independence.
The other FLNKS members have been more open to variations of political status. Palika President Paul Neaoutyine has declared his party is open to discussing “l’indépendance avec partenariat” (independence with partnership), which would establish New Caledonia as an independent nation but with an ongoing relationship with France. Despite these differences, the FLNKS congress “reaffirmed its objective to have the country accede to full sovereignty in the referendum scheduled for this year 2018.”
If New Caledonia’s Congress cannot agree on a date for the referendum by May this year, the French State must hold the referendum at least six months before next Congressional elections in May 2019. For this reason, everyone is gearing up for a referendum in late October or November, preparing for a public campaign in the months before the vote. One of the central concerns for independence supporters has been to meet the legal requirement that potential referendum voters must be registered on the general electoral roll.
The Congress called on independence activists appointed to the Special Administrative Committees which register voters “to maintain the greatest possible vigilance during the forthcoming work to update the special lists and especially those for the referendum.” The United Nations Special Committee on Decolonisation is expected to send a mission to New Caledonia this month, to monitor the work of these Special Administrative Committees, as they finalise the voting roll that will be released publically in August. The FLNKS Congress reaffirmed its call for automatic registration of all indigenous Kanaks of voting age, echoing a central concern of the Rassemblement des indépendantistes et nationalistes (RIN).
The RIN is a loose network outside the FLNKS that includes more radical proindependence groups like the Parti Travailliste (PT), Dynamique Unitaire Sud (DUS), the USTKE trade union confederation and individual activists. UC President Daniel Goa has floated the idea of re-incorporating all pro-independence forces - including political parties, trade unions and churches - within the FLNKS. However this idea was not accepted by Palika and UPM at the Arama congress. Instead, the congress resolution called on “independence supporters, progressives and nationalists to support the planned accession to full sovereignty and to re-join the structures created by the FLNKS to undertake a campaign at local level.”
This aims to reinforce the “Comités Nationalistes et Citoyens” (CNC), a network of local action groups in tribes and towns across the country. The CNC were created in 2016 as a structure for independence supporters to campaign together at the grassroots, regardless of political affiliation. Young people share their vision This spirit of cooperation was evident amongst young Kanaks at the Arama meeting. A key feature of the congress was the strong presence and coordination of young people, who have not been involved in longstanding political jousting amongst their elders, often dating back to the 1970s. Each of the FLNKS member parties has a separate youth wing, but younger delegates caucused together and issued a joint statement from the congress.
The youth declaration called for “a sovereign Kanaky-New-Caledonia, as a multicultural, secular, democratic and united republic.” The united youth network will organise a series of cultural and sporting events during 2018, so that “young New Caledonians, whoever they may be, can join the movement for national unity so our country can access full sovereignty.” New Caledonian leaders across the political spectrum will meet with French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and other representatives in March for the next Committee of Signatories to the Noumea Accord.
This meeting, one of the last before the referendum, will address outstanding issues over the referendum process, as well as the transfer of the remaining “Article 27” powers from Paris to Noumea (including control of the university, TV and radio, as well as the ADRAF land reform agency currently managed by the French State). To continue the momentum towards the vote, the FLNKS will hold a national convention in April.
This meeting will see the formal launch of the independence movement’s campaign, in the lead up to a scheduled visit by French President Emmanuel Macron. Since last year, the FLNKS has been developing a proposal for “a sovereign Kanaky-New-Caledonia,” with ideas for economic, political and cultural reform that will be the centrepiece of the referendum campaign. Beyond its mobilisation on the ground, the FLNKS congress resolutions highlighted the importance of international solidarity, including the “historic and ongoing support of the Melanesian Spearhead Group,” support from the Non-Aligned Movement as well as churches, NGOs and trade unions (a notable omission from the list is the Pacific Islands Forum, given the rapprochement between France and key Forum member states like Australia). To mobilise international support during 2018, the FLNKS will soon name overseas representatives as official spokespeople in Europe and the Pacific islands.
The movement will also send a team to build support for independence and sovereignty in French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna (key constituencies, given the large Tahitian and Wallisian populations living in New Caledonia). Soon after the congress, FLNKS delegates travelled to Port Moresby for the MSG summit. As a signal to the host government, the Arama congress “reaffirmed its unshakeable support for the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP) in its combat for human rights and the right to self-determination in West Papua.” The FLNKS congress also resolved to support nationalist movements in Corsica, Catalonia and French Polynesia – signalling their support for allies in the debate over autonomy, decentralisation and independence that is raging around the globe, from Spain to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, from old Caledonia to New Caledonia.