Tuesday, March 19, 2013

France’s Far Right Wants Early Vote on New Caledonia Independence—but Only Because They’re against It

The flag of Kanaky

Need another reason to be in favor of independence for France’s colony of New Caledonia?  Here’s one: Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s neo-fascist, immigrant-bashing Front National (F.N., or National Front) party is against it.  Nonetheless, she visited New Caledonia’s capital, Nouméa, recently, and told a crowd that she wanted New Caledonians to vote on independence as soon as possible.  This is mainly because she fears a delayed vote is more likely to result in the loss of the colony.

New Caledonia’s location in the South Pacific
First seen by Europeans in 1774, during one of Captain James Cook’s expeditions, New Caledonia was claimed by the French Republic in 1853, and in 1946 it was made a full “overseas territory,” with French citizenship for its residents.  Long after nearly all the other European colonies in the South Pacific had been granted independence, the French continued to hold onto theirs fiercely, reluctantly allowing the New Hebrides, which it governed jointly with the United Kingdom, to become the independent Republic of Vanuatu in 1980.  This leaves New Caledonia and France’s other two overseas territories, French Polynesia (including Tahiti) and Wallis & Futuna, among the very few remaining colonies in the region.  Growing unrest in the 1980s, some of it violent, brought the French and native New Caledonian leaders to the negotiating table, where in 1998 they hammered out the Nouméa Accord.  In it, New Caledonia was given some devolved rights of self-government and a provision that at a time no earlier than 2014 and no later than 2018 there would be a binding plebiscite on whether New Caledonia would stay French.

Nouméa Accord signatories meeting last year
But exactly when to hold the vote could make all the difference, for two reasons: one demographic and one political.  First, New Caledonia’s indigenous people, called Kanaks or Kanakas, are in the minority, at 44.6% of the population.  (In French Polynesia, by contrast, native people are over three-quarters of residents.)  Europeans, mostly French, are 34.5% of New Caledonia’s population.  Most of the rest are Pacific islanders from Tahiti, Wallis & Futuna, and elsewhere.  But few French move to New Caledonia, and some are leaving.  Meanwhile, Kanakas outbreed other groups.  If the vote is left too long, then soon the “yes” votes for independence may have a plurality if not an outright majority.

Secondly: right now the two main anti-independence parties, le Rassemblement–U.M.P. and Avenir Ensemble, control just over half the seats in New Caledonia’ territorial legislature, while separatists occupy only 8 of the body’s 54 seats.  This does not at all reflect actual sentiment in the islands, which divides pretty closely along racial lines.  Instead, it reflects how deeply divided the squabbling pro-independence factions are, which has led many Kanakas to vote for the white parties in hopes of more political stability.  But anti-French and anti-colonialist feeling is still strong among Kanakas, and a delayed vote would also increase the possibility that separatist would find common cause and tip the political balance, while colonialist forces could falter or experience their own divisions.

Already, many pro-French leaders are seeing the possibility of a narrow result against independence stoking indigenous resentment, perhaps violently.  So some New Caledonians who want to remain in France realize that it may never be able to do so peacefully and are preparing to vote “yes” to independence as the lesser of two evils.  This is only one of the splits that could threaten the anti-independence coalition and dilute its message.

Nicolas Sarkozy in New Caledonia
So Marine Le Pen would like the vote to be held right away.  She wants to keep New Caledonia in France, she criticized the former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, for being open to giving the island up, and she especially opposes the current installation of the flag of the Kanaka people—who want to call their country Kanaky—as an official flag in the colony alongside the French tricoleur.  Sarkozy’s showing in New Caledonia in last year’s presidential election, in which he lost to the socialist François Hollande, was better in New Caledonia than anywhere else in the overseas territories other than Réunion in the Indian Ocean.  Sarkozy got 63% of New Caledonia’s votes, the anti-independence Rassemblement–U.M.P. party being after all a local branch of Sarkozy’s Union pour une Mouvement Populaire.  Sarkozy almost certainly lost some white votes because of Hollande’s stance against independence; Kanaka nationalists tended to favor Hollande, perhaps because they figured the question of independence would in the end be decided in Nouméa rather than in Paris anyway.  But Sarkozy was also hurt by an unexpectedly strong showing in New Caledonia by the National Front itself.  Sarkozy blamed these numbers on Hollande’s cosiness with separatists in French Polynesia—his implication being that pro-independence Kanakas were among those voting for Le Pen. There is some logic to this, I suppose: Le Pen has in the past resisted incorporating the Indian Ocean territory of Mayotte more closely into the French Republic by making it a full département, which it became in 2011, since she feared a resulting influx of brown people to the motherland.  France’s neo-fascists like to keep colonies at arm’s length, but they don’t want to lose them altogether, resulting in some odd mixed messages.  Suffice to say, national (French) party politics in New Caledonia are complicated and do not follow racial or pro-vs.-anti-independence lines.

Marine Le Pen with a swastika on her forehead,
as displayed at a Madonna concert which ran afoul of European laws for such things.
(Sorry, it was the most flattering picture of her I could find.)
Now, though, Marine Le Pen is steadfastly against independence and thus wants a quick vote she hopes the pro-colonialist forces will win.  One wonders, though: at what cost?  Would the National Front be willing to go so far as to hurry along a mandate for continuing colonization that may lead to more civil war in the territory?  Well, the F.N. was founded by Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, an accused torturer for the French army during the Algerian War, who is also known for fiery anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim comments and for physically assaulting one of his political opponents.  Maybe burning cars in the streets of Nouméa is exactly what France’s far right is hoping for.  They may well get their wish.

[You can read more about Kanaky, (French) Polynesia, and many other separatist and new-nation movements, both famous and obscure, in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]

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