Updated: 05/10/2014 11:16 | By Agence France-Presse

Crunch vote looms for Noumea's future under France

New Caledonia faces a looming independence vote fraught with uncertainty: does the nickel-rich Pacific territory stick with colonial power France or strike out on its own?

Crunch vote looms for Noumea's future under France

Men gather to play boules along the strand in Noumea, February 8, 2014 - by Bill Code

Fiercely contested congressional elections on Sunday will hold the key to who prepares the referendum.

"It is the election that will shape the Congress of New Caledonia that will lead a referendum process on the future of the territory," said Denise Fisher, a specialist on French power in the region.

"It's significant," added the former Australian diplomat in Noumea. "We have got to remember that only 30 years ago there was bloodshed around the future of New Caledonia."

Unrest shook the islands in the mid-1980s as those seeking autonomy clashed with opponents. Seventy people are thought to have died.

The 1998 Noumea Accord, agreed between French "loyalists" and independence supporters drawn largely from the Melanesian Kanak community, settled on increased autonomy and a referendum to be held between 2014 and 2018.

Should local politicians fail to agree a date for a referendum, Paris will organise it in 2018.

Today, the capital paints a strangely French scene. In the late afternoon, men of different backgrounds -- European, Melanesian, Polynesian and Asian -- gather to play boules on the beach.

But with political parties split along independence lines, the territory's unique status -- a French overseas possession with decision-making powers over tax, labour laws and trade, but not defence or foreign policy -- is up for grabs.

- Warning over living standards -

In the outgoing Congress, independence supporters -- mostly Kanak, who make up around 40 percent of New Caledonia's 265,000 residents -- held 23 of the 54 seats. For their opponents, dumping France means economic ruin.

"If France has to leave the standard of living for Caledonian people would drop," President Harold Martin said.

"All of the social services which you have here, which don't exist elsewhere in the Pacific, wouldn't be available to those who need them -- disability allowances, public housing, family tax allowances."

Transfers from France account for 15 percent of gross domestic product, giving the archipelago a higher GDP per capita than New Zealand.

But wealth is not evenly spread and backers of independence want major economic reform.

"We live in an artificial economy, an economy that is boosted by transfers," said Roch Wamytan, president of Congress and former head of the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front.

In the North province, the Front holds power, and many believe nickel is the remedy. New Caledonia boasts a quarter of the world's known resources of the metal, which is a core component in the manufacture of stainless steel, rechargeable batteries and coins.

Last year, along with mining giant Glencore Xstrata, the province launched its own nickel project, the first in the north, firing the dreams of Kanaks who consider the metal a path to emancipation.

Pro-France politicians doubt nickel's potential to sustain an independent country. Wamytan too is cautious, but is in no doubt about its importance.

"Production of nickel and cobalt is the core on which we will build the economy and the economic independence of New Caledonia," he said. 

- Families cling to French identity -

Away from Noumea, small towns along the west coast highway have the feel of rural France, albeit under tropical vegetation. Roadside taverns offer croissants and white "Caldoche" families, as European settlers are known, cling to French identity.

After 150 years of French presence, many Kanaks have adopted not only the language but also a fondness for French bread and Christianity.

But the communities are seldom mixed. Many towns have separate French and Kanak names.

There has been a mainstream revival of indigenous cultures over recent decades. Twenty-eight native languages are still spoken.

Traditional customs remain strong and a significant proportion of the 265,000 population disputes French cultural dominance, a fact reflected at the ballot box.

In the lead-up to a referendum, the number of guns being sold is also feeding into widespread concern that peace can never be guaranteed. Rumours of weapons being stockpiled have been given credence by politicians and media reports.

"There are real risks that we will revert to civil disturbance if the consultation process is not handled very carefully," warns Fisher.

For now, politicians are still talking.

Emmanuel Tjibaou knows what can happen when violence replaces debate. His father, Kanak leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou, was assassinated in 1989 by another Melanesian over political compromise with France.

"We've had to fight and we've had to do harm to ourselves, simply because we thought we could develop the country by ignoring one another," he said. 

"That's what's at stake with this vote. It's not just a vote for a list -- it's a vote for a project in which everyone has to see themselves."

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