Nouméa – France or Kanaky? Polling stations in New Caledonia, a small strategic area of 270,000 inhabitants in the Pacific, opened Sunday for a historic referendum on independence, where polls predict the victory of no.
Nearly 175,000 voters in this French archipelago, colonized in 1853 and with significant nickel reserves, have until 18H00 (08H00 in Paris) to go to one of the 284 polling stations and say if they want "that New Caledonia attains full sovereignty and becomes independent".
This referendum, which punctuates 30 years of progressive decolonization, is closely monitored by Paris, 18,000 km away. Emmanuel Macron will speak on television at 13:00 Sunday (23:00 local hours) after the proclamation of the result.
To make this vote indisputable, 250 delegates sent by the State, and observers of the United Nations will be present in the offices.
In the school Candide Koch, in the neighborhood of the Valley settlers in Noumea, nearly thirty people were already waiting to vote, a quarter of an hour before the opening, said AFP.
This consultation, foreseen by the Nouméa agreement signed in 1998, is intended to continue the work of reconciliation between Kanak, indigenous people of the territory, and Caldoches, population of European origin, started with the Matignon agreements in 1988. The latter were signed after the violence of the 1980s that culminated in the uprising and the assault on the Ouvéa cave in May 1988, resulting in 25 deaths.
For Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who arrives on the Caillou the day after the poll, this referendum marks "the beginning of New Caledonia who wants to build a future".
On the eve of the poll, Nouméa and its surroundings, which are home to two-thirds of the population, remained particularly calm.
– "Very calm countryside"-
While in the Northern Provinces and the loyalty islands, which are Kanak-majority, independence supporters have paved roads and trees with their flags, the pro-France display little the blue-white-red pennant.
Xavier Moutier, a young Caldoche aged 19 from Bourail (west), showed his on his pickup. "They do not hesitate to put their Kanak flag, we have to show ours, to say that we will not let them walk on it"he says.
"This is a historic event that everyone wanted, but paradoxically, the issue has lost its intensity", notes Pierre-Christophe Pantz, doctor in geopolitics.The campaign was very calm, the referendum does not arouse enthusiasm, the stakes are trivialized", especially because"the New Caledonians think that it will not change their daily lives"but also because polls predict a broad No victory, in a range of 63 to 75%.
For Paul Fizin, Doctor of History, "if the abstention rate is high, it will highlight that the independentist project has not irrigated throughout society".
– glaring inequalities –
Soumynie Mene, 38-year-old independence activist, judgepity that the population does not feel concerned by a referendum that has been preparing for 30 years", considering that he is yet"time to turn the page of colonization".
In the event of a yes vote, the FLNKS stressed that it did not want a break with France, but independence in partnership with France.
Three loyalist parties, very divided, defend the maintenance in France, Caledonia together (moderate right), the Rassemblement LR and the New Caledonian Republicans. They highlight the protection of France and 1.3 billion euros of annual aid from France. They hope that this first referendum will also be the last while the Nouméa agreement provides for the possibility of two further consultations within four years.
For Paul Fizin, despite thirty years of economic and social rebalancing for the first people, inequalities remain glaring. School failure, high unemployment, precarious housing … "there are still problems of integration and a sense of injustice in kanak society"he says.
Part of the Kanak youth, marginalized, sank into delinquency. Both sides fear their reaction if the no wins. The sale of alcohol in the shops was banned this weekend, the gendarmerie staff were reinforced and the Nouméa prison, strengthened its capacity of reception.
Political staffs have recommended discretion to their activists. But nothing says that some pro-French will not ostensibly celebrate their announced victory.