Focus on New Caledonia decolonisation as Pacific territory casts first votes

Unlike the high security in France, in this Pacific Island just a two-hour flight from Australia, there is only a low level of security, if any, at polling booths after the terrorist attack in Paris on Thursday. 

The big issues are not candidates’ policies aimed at the French “metropole”, but the New Caledonian independence referendum due in 2018, and law and order.

Every vote, in every corner of the Republic counts in this election, including the 190,000 in New Caledonia.

Political violence during presidential elections three decades ago left dozens of Indigenous Kanaks dead but led to promises of an independence referendum under the Noumea and Matignon Accords.

Traditionally New Caledonia is a Republican stronghold, but support here too has been fractured for the traditional parties.

Watch: The five key presidential candidates

None of the eleven candidates have visited the territory during the campaign. Five presidential hopefuls have not hung posters in New Caledonia on the designated campaign bill boards.

In the final hours of campaigning, far-Right National Front supporters used unashamedly unorthodox tactics and unfurled a banner over the highway leading out of capital Noumea to catch the Friday commuter traffic.

Marine Le Pen’s party wants to leave the European Union, but is making the strongest pitch for the anti-independence vote in the referendum.

“National Front has always been against decolonisation of New Caledonia, what we want is to stay French,” said Bianca Henin, local secretary for the National Front.

“Not like other candidates, who want Caledonians to decide.”

Watch: French voters set for presidential election

Ms Le Pen has promised to increase prison capacity in a crackdown against “delinquent” youth and to promote maritime and tourism-based economic development.

Voters are due to return to the polls late next year for the referendum, and all the leading presidential candidates have one thing in common, saying they will respect its outcome, even if they do not agree with the process in varying degrees.

New Caledonia is traditionally a conservative Republican stronghold, and Francois Fillion’s supporters are confident they can beat Le Pen’s National Front.  

“He has his own convictions on New Caledonia, he is not influenced by any other candidate,” said Bernard Deladrière, president of local Fillion campaign.

“Francois Fillon has clearly stated that he wants New Caledonia to stay in France.

“He will restore the law and order and public safety on the island and support economic development.”

Watch: The French presidential race tightens

Mr Fillion has committed to increase security forces, build prisons, maintain the overseas public service and address “Caledonian citizenship” issues.

Two-in-five voters are indigenous Kanaks, the drivers of the independence movement, with one faction backing the Socialist candidate, an election rank outsider.

“We support Benoit Hamon because he is with the Socialist Party, and it is with them that we are discussing decolonisation from the country,” said Charles Washetine from the Parti de Libération Kanak (PALIKA), part of the broader Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) grouping.

Fellow FLNKS group Union Caledonie has not endorsed any candidate, saying the election is a distraction from the coming referendum.

Splitting the Left vote is other leading contenders in France, far-Left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon and former Socialist finance minister Emmanuel Macron, who is treading softly on independence.

“The latest polls say New Caledonia will probably stay French, but he confirmed he would accompany New Caledonia, whatever the result,” said Patrick Louis, local spokesman for the En Marche party founded by Mr Macron.

“He has confirmed that his personal choice is the New Caledonia stays within the nation.” 

Mr Macron has also promised the overseas territories more police, maintaining conditions for public servants and pre- and post-referendum community engagement plans. 

Mr Melechon said he would promote renewable energy self-sustainability in the French overseas territories but SBS received no response to enquires from his New Caledonian representatives.

After the presidential election is over in May, there will be legislative polls in June and one for the French senate in September, leaving less the 14 months to meet the referendum deadline.

Whoever wins the presidency, and eventually government, will determine how smoothly the independence referendum proceeds.

Watch the French Presidential Election live from 5am Monday (EST).