The holiday paradise in the Pacific still belongs to France. Now the New Caledonians vote to see if it stays that way. Opponents of independence fear for the security of their homeland, explains Olivier Poisson, editor-in-chief of the Inselzeitung newspaper.
The name New Caledonia can be misleading. Caledonia, as the Romans once called Scotland. But that's thousands of miles away from the Pacific Islands, not to mention the differences in climate. Nevertheless, the main island reminded the English sailor Thomas Cook to the north of Britain when he discovered the islands in 1774 from a European point of view. Since then, there is a "new Scotland" in the neighborhood of Hawaii.
When the first settlers from France and Great Britain came to the islands in the early 19th century, they encountered Aboriginal people who themselves Kanaka called what in Hawaiian human means. The colonial rulers soon made it a collective term for various indigenous peoples, until the name "Kanake" as a racist swear word for all sorts of foreigners finally made it into the German language.
The Kanako ethnic group still exists today – and some of them have long been demanding the independence of their islands, Napoleon III. occupied and used as a penal colony before being declared a French overseas territory in 1946. Sunday's independence referendum was scheduled as part of a peace process decades ago. Journalist Olivier Poisson, 46, is from Northern France and editor-in-chief of the islands only daily newspaper. Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes, He explains why many people are afraid of independence – and why Brexit plays no part in the discussion.
Mr Poisson, how much France is in New Caledonia?
Olivier Poisson: The archipelago is really a small piece of France in a remote region in the Pacific. The streets, the signs, the shops look like there. Nouméa, the capital, could be a city on the Côte d'Azur. But if you leave the city and go into the bush, then it looks like in Australia. There are beautiful estates on the west coast and many tropical plants grow on the east coast. And everywhere around the 18 000 square kilometers of land there are idyllic beaches with large lagoons.
What political influence does France still have on the islands today?
France only plays a role in the sense of state sovereignty. It handles foreign affairs, finances the army and the justice system. Taxes, the health system, education policy – all this is regulated in New Caledonia itself. The official language is French, but the Kanaks speak their own languages and live in tribes as they used to. The currency is the pacific franc, which is linked to the euro. New Caledonia has two members each in the French Senate and the National Assembly.
How important is the referendum for the people of New Caledonia? Very important. Some of the Kanakens believe that only independence can put an end to colonization. Nevertheless, the election campaign is calm and respectful on both sides. But you can see many flags promoting independence.
That is, the European-born residents are more in favor of the status quo?
Exactly. They believe that independence from France is too dangerous and fear that New Caledonia can not survive on its own. The fear is great, China could incorporate the islands, which could start with the conclusion of tourism contracts. The fear is still abstract, but China is pursuing a massive expansion policy in the Pacific. That is why the Europeans are for autonomy, but not for the separation of France. By the way, there are more groups to mention.
About 39 percent of the inhabitants of the island are Kanaken, 27 percent are originally from Europe. 8.6 percent come from Indonesia and 8.2 percent from the archipelago Uvea and Futuna – this includes, among others, some people from the Maghreb states, from Vietnam and Polynesia. The smaller groups are quite independent and fear a nation of Kanaks.
Europeans are quick to think of two things when it comes to questions of independence: Brexit and Catalonia's attempts to break away from Spain. Do these things play any role in the discussion in New Caledonia?
No not at all. The referendum here is the result of a process that began 30 years ago with violent clashes between Kanakans and European-born residents of the island. That this referendum will take place in 2018 was already set 20 years ago. Should the opponents of independence win on Sunday, there must be another referendum in 2020. And if they then win again, even a third vote for 2022 is provided. Without this rule, the separatists would not have agreed to the whole peace process. But the No camp wants to talk about it again, should it make a bigger win.
What is New Caledonia's relationship with the EU?
The islands benefit from EU funds from France. In case of independence, there would probably have to be renegotiated. New Caledonia is associated with some other overseas territories and is a kind of outpost of the Union, but neither EU territory nor part of the internal market.
How will you vote on Sunday? Only indigenous people and people who came to the islands before 1998 are allowed to vote. In total, this is about 174,000 out of 300,000 inhabitants, or about 58 percent. Since I myself have come here only in 2014, I am not allowed to participate in the referendum. If I could, I think I would vote no. The danger is too great that an independent New Caledonia could lose much of its standard of living. And the protection that France grants us.
What do the polls say?
Several predict that opponents will win independence. Many Kanakans will probably vote against it – simply because the project of an independent New Caledonia seems too risky for them.