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Philippe Gomès adjusts his frameless glasses as he leans back on the couch in his office. The leader of Calédonie Ensemble, one of New Caledonia’s most influential political parties, looks surprisingly relaxed considering the circumstances: he is in the midst of a fierce battle. It centres on a question that has rumbled on here for many decades: should New Caledonia break with France to become an independent nation? The issue was responsible for bringing this Pacific archipelago to the brink of civil war in the 1980s and has been the source of social division ever since. Now an opportunity for resolution has arrived as a long-scheduled referendum is due to take place in November. “It has been a long time coming,” says Gomès, whose party opposes independence. “Now it is time for the people to speak.”

The office that Gomès occupies in the capital, Nouméa, sits near a busy waterfront teeming with yachts and tourists. The view of the surrounding neighbourhood justifies the city’s reputation as “the Paris of the Pacific”: palm trees sway next to a modern market building filled with fish, while men in flower-print shirts buzz past in Citroën hatchbacks. A tricolore flag flutters at the building’s front. “Being French is very important to how we live together here,” says Gomès. “It links us.”

Amid the area’s beauty, however, are hints of the deep problems dogging New Caledonia. Down the street a restaurant packed with white customers is staffed almost entirely by young Melanesian waiters. They are members of New Caledonia’s indigenous people, the Kanaks, who make up 40 per cent of the population.

The issue of racial inequality is a vexed one throughout the archipelago and plays a central role in the referendum debate. On average, Kanaks earn four times less than white people and have a lower life expectancy. While some have climbed to the upper echelons of business and government, there are still many who feel left behind. Apart from economic woes, those resentments tap into deeper frustrations about a lack of cultural recognition and the historical injustices of colonisation.

France’s control of New Caledonia dates back to 1853, when Napoleon III decided to annex the islands and turn them into a penal colony. Over the subsequent decades the Kanaks were driven from their land, exploited for their labour and, in many cases, confined to reserves. The islands remained tightly governed by Paris until the 20th century; in 1957, a local governing council with limited powers was established. Decades of lobbying for more autonomy eventually saw the system change to a 54-seat congress that operates in conjunction with a collegiate government. New Caledonians also have representation in the French senate and national assembly and are able to vote in the French presidential elections.

Still, most Kanak leaders remain unsatisfied with the state of the power hierarchy. To them the only true path to cultural emancipation is a clean break from Paris. “For us to get back independence is to get back our dignity,” says Victor Tutugoro, the second vice-president of New Caledonia’s northern province assembly. “We just want to live together and not have France have any authority over our everyday lives.”

The upcoming vote’s result, however, is far from certain. Standing in opposition to the independence movement is the majority of New Caledonia’s European descendants. Gomès is their most outspoken leader. “It is very natural to want independence because most of the other Pacific countries have asked for it and got it,” he says. “But actually they can still be autonomous and have some sovereignty within the French Republic. It is better for everyone because then we will all have security, both economic and military.”

The rules governing the referendum can be traced back to a violent period that locals refer to as “the events”. During the 1980s, tensions surrounding the archipelago’s independence debate reached boiling point. The climax came when a group of Kanak militants captured 27 policemen and held them in a cave for nearly two weeks. France sent an elite group of commandos, who killed 19 of the hostage takers. The fallout from the violence led to an agreement called the Matignon Accords that, among other things, stipulated that a referendum would be held in 1998. Less than a year later the Kanak leader at the forefront of the reconciliation process, Jean-Marie Tjibaou, was assassinated by a fellow separatist who saw the agreement as a betrayal. Jean-Marie’s son, Emmanuel, who was 13 at the time, recalls the day vividly. “I was watching TV when the phone rang,” he says. “When my mother said we had to go to Nouméa and bring a good shirt and nice trousers, I understood he had died.”

Since his father’s death, Emmanuel has been careful about his involvement in the independence cause. But he is still deeply invested in improving the standing of Kanaks in New Caledonia’s society. He’s the director of one of the islands’ most famous museums: the Tjibaou Cultural Centre. Named after his father, the building exists to celebrate Kanak customs and traditions. The French government paid for the facility in the mid-1990s as a gesture of peace. They commissioned Italian architect Renzo Piano, who created a chain of 10 shell structures, taking inspiration from traditional Kanak huts.

The Tjibaou Cultural Centre served as the location for the signing of the Nouméa Accord, an agreement that postponed the planned 1998 vote. It stipulated that New Caledonia would have the chance to hold up to three independence referendums, the first of which could take place any time between 2014 and 2018.Many of the Nouméa Accord’s original signatories remain at the highest levels of government and hold significant sway in the November vote. The most prominent example is the pro-independence advocate Roch Wamytan, who serves as a member of congress. A silver-haired man with a warm smile, he is not sold on the loyalist argument that the Kanaks would be better off negotiating for more autonomy within the French republic. “To be independent is the right of every people,” he says. “We have been preparing for 30 years and now we are ready.”

One of the most common questions directed at Wamytan and his fellow separatists is about money: how could New Caledonia’s public services cope without the €1bn that France sends each year? The answer, Wamytan believes, lies in the archipelago’s vast natural resources. New Caledonia holds 25 per cent of the world’s nickel reserves and has recently also started producing cobalt. “These assets won’t be exhausted for a very long time,” he says. “So they will continue to be at the centre of our economy.”

Wamytan is also optimistic about the future of tourism and agriculture. Not everyone, however, agrees with his maths. Bianca Henin, for example, is certain that the economy is contingent on Paris’s support. She is the New Caledonian representative of Marine Le Pen’s National Front (many French parties have chapters in the archipelago and wield considerable influence). “Without the support of France we would look like Fiji,” says Henin, dismissively. “There simply would not be enough money to organise national life.”

Another major concern for Gomès is if New Caledonia’s economy ends up relying too heavily on Chinese investment. Such a situation, he thinks, could have significant geopolitical implications for the Pacific region. He points to the example of Vanuatu, a former French-Anglo colony that has been flooded with Chinese money. “It could almost be like economic colonisation,” he says. “There are already signs that they are interested. The Chinese ambassador to France recently spent 10 days in New Caledonia with a big team and they weren’t just here for a holiday.”

In the lead-up to the vote, the head of New Caledonia’s French-funded police force has promised to step up security. Many worry that the archipelago may be heading towards another bloody period. “People are frightened,” says Pascal Vittori, leader of the anti-independence All Caledonians party. “But we are used to it. In New Caledonia, politics can change your life.”

Leaders within the independence movement are also trying to mitigate the possibility of violence. A whiteboard in the headquarters of the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front, a political coalition that was linked to the 1980s hostage crisis, displays a list of peaceful demonstrations and meeting. “For me, the best solution is dialogue,” says Mickael Forrest, its foreign-affairs secretary. A handrolled cigarette in his hand, Forrest looks jetlagged. He has just landed from New York, where he visited the UN HQ. The organisation has worked closely with Kanak nationalists since 1986, when New Caledonia was reinstated to a committee of non-self-governing territories. “After the referendum we are going to work with the UN to improve our political institutions,” says Forrest. “We don’t want independence and then chaos. We are not just dreamers.”

Gomès believes that the biggest challenge facing his opponents is articulating a detailed vision of the future. As it stands he worries that the debate has become subverted, with cultural recognition being conflated with sovereignty. “Being pro-independence has become more like a philosophy,” he says. “They want to be recognised as Kanaks and that is a legitimate reaction. But it is an outcome that can be achieved by better integrating Kanak culture into our institutions.”

For his part, Emmanuel Tjibaou believes that more pressing problems are being glossed over in the independence debate. His role at the Tjibaou Cultural Centre has brought him into regular contact with the poverty that some Kanaks experience. Every day he works from a large office with a picture of his father on the wall and a window that provides a clear view of a wooded area peppered with squat houses. “On my drive in I often see people with jugs collecting water at the nearby skate park,” he says. “On the other side of the road there are huge houses and expensive cars. That is not how society can go forward.”


Facts and figures:

Population 279,000
Coastline 2,254km
Languages Officially French but 33 Melanesian-Polynesian dialects are also spoken
Main export partners
China (30.4%), Japan (15.7%), South Korea (14.7%), France (5%) and Belgium (4.5%)
Airports (with paved runways) 12

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