“We haven’t created a movement to fight for independence or to fight for France - we’ve created a movement to fight poverty in New Caledonia. That’s our struggle.”
That’s Milakulo Tukumuli, leader of Eveil océanien (Pacific awakening), one of the newest political parties in New Caledonia.
“We are a rich country of 280,000 people, with mineral resources and three nickel smelters,” he says. “But we have lots of people living in squatter settlements, they can’t feed their children and the children can’t get a good education. That’s what I’m fighting against.”
As long-term residents of the French Pacific dependency prepare to vote in a referendum on self-determination on 4 October, Eveil océanien has urged supporters to make their own decision, whether to vote for independence or to remain within the French Republic.
Historically, the large Wallisian and Futunan community in New Caledonia’s Southern Province has backed anti-independence parties, benefitting from jobs and welfare support provided by the governing conservative majority. But a younger generation of Wallisians are changing the political landscape, as they question the allegiances of their elders and look to building a future in the Melanesian nation.
Milakulo Tukumuli is symbolic of this change. Born in October 1984 in the east coast mining town of Thio, Tukumuli studied at the University of New Caledonia before travelling to Marseilles in France, to obtain a PhD in mathematics.
In November 2018, a first referendum under New Caledonia’s Noumea Accord showed a significant polarisation between voters, with a majority of the indigenous Kanak people supporting independence, but most non-Kanak voting No, preferring existing ties to France. This polarisation spurred Tukumuli and other young Wallisians to found the new party in March 2019.
With its direct appeal to Wallisian and Futunan voters and other islander communities, the new movement was quickly denounced as “communalist” and “divisive.” But in an interview with Islands Business, Tukumuli said they deliberately sought to target Polynesian voters.
“For more than 30 years, politics in New Caledonia has seen two blocs, one loyalist, the other in support of independence,” he said. “During these 30 years we’ve seen economic, social and political development in New Caledonia, but after all this time we need to draw up a balance sheet. These two blocs now need to work together to find better solutions. From the beginning, my idea was to create a different sort of politics. I decided to create a movement that will include both supporters and opponents of independence.”
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the space race and arms manufacture for the Vietnam War spurred a global nickel boom. With New Caledonia controlling an estimated 25 per cent of global nickel reserves, the demand for labour in the mining sector was met by significant migration from France and also from France’s Polynesian dependency of Wallis and Futuna. Today, there are more Wallisians and Futunans living in New Caledonia than remain in Wallis and Futuna itself.
The latest data on New Caledonia’s ethnic mix comes from the 2014 census, which shows more than 11 per cent of the population were non-Kanak islanders, from Wallis and Futuna (8.2 per cent); Tahiti (2.1 per cent); or Vanuatu (1 per cent). While indigenous Kanak (39.1 per cent) and Europeans (27 per cent) are the largest groups, nearly 15 per cent of the population identified as mixed-race or simply “New Caledonian.”
There are now generations of people with Polynesian heritage born in the capital Noumea and surrounding towns like Mont Dore, Paita and Dumbea and – despite pride in their culture – they see themselves as New Caledonian.
Eveil océanien has tapped into these new generations, drawing away supporters from anti-independence parties like Rassemblement-Les Républicains and Calédonie ensemble, as well as some independence activists from the Rassemblement démocratique océanien, which unites Wallisian supporters of independence as a member of the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS).
Just two months after its formation, EO contested the May 2019 elections for New Caledonia’s three provincial assemblies and national congress. As a journalist reporting on the campaign at the time, I saw that Tukumuli and other young leaders had struck a chord amongst many Polynesian voters. Addressing an election campaign meeting, Tukumuli argued that the time had come for Wallisians and other smaller communities to speak in their own voice, and no longer rely on the patronage of the European-led conservative parties.
“We have never revolted before, so they continue to take us for idiots,” he said. “We’ve never stood up for ourselves and so they’ve done what they’ve liked. We vote for them because we’re scared to vote for the Kanak, as if we’d turned into white people who detest the Kanak. Why should we do this?”
From a standing start, the party won four seats in the Southern Provincial Assembly and three in the Congress in the 2019 elections. With his PhD in mathematics, Tukumuli quickly saw that EO’s three seats gave it the balance of forces in the 54-member legislature. Twenty six members of the incoming Congress came from parties supporting independence, with another 25 from anti-independence parties (the conservative Avenir en Confiance coalition with 18 seats and the previously dominant Calédonie ensemble, which saw its representation halve from 15 to 7 seats).
New Caledonian researcher Pierre-Christophe Pantz has highlighted the way that EO has leveraged these pivotal votes to obtain positions at all levels of government: “This strength was quickly shown with the election of a pro-independence Speaker of the Congress for the first time in May 2019. Then in June 2019, through an alliance with the anti-independence coalition Avenir en Confiance, EO obtained a position for Vaimu’a Muliava as a member of the collegial Government of New Caledonia, as well as the post of Vice President of the Southern Province for Milakulo Tukumuli.”
Last year, Vaimu’a Muliava backed the Right’s candidate for President of New Caledonia, Thierry Santa. But this year, explains Pierre-Christophe Pantz, EO again swung its support behind the independence movement: “On 22 July, on the very eve of the annual re-election of the executive of New Caledonia’s Congress, EO announced that it would join the UC-FLNKS parliamentary group, giving this bloc 16 members. Combined with the other pro-independence members of Congress, this give the independence movement 29 seats, a majority in the Congress. This allowed Roch Wamytan to be re-elected as Speaker on 23 July 2020.”
A Pacific majority
A veteran member of the independence party Union Calédonienne (UC), Roch Wamytan used his acceptance speech to welcome “the islander majority that had brought me again to lead the premier political institution of the country.”
In an interview, Wamytan explained the significance of Eveil océanien’s decision: “We have created within the Congress what I’ve called a ‘majorité océanien’. This is not a pro-independence majority, but a recognition that the party led by Mr. Tukumuli is a party supported by islanders, a minority of whom support independence and a majority who do not.”
Calédonie ensemble leader Philippe Gomes expresses a wry admiration for the way the FLNKS leadership has reached out to the islander communities.
“Roch Wamytan, the President of the Congress, is very crafty,” Gomes told me. “He doesn’t talk about a pro-independence majority with Eveil océanien, he talks about a Pacific majority. To open the door, he talks about Pacific values and identity in order to build his political majority.”
During this referendum campaign, Calédonie ensemble is the only anti-independence party to stay outside of the six-member Loyalist alliance, while still campaigning for a No vote. Gomes blames the racism of the governing coalition for EO’s decision to forge this majority in Congress.
“When you hear the language of Avenir en Confiance, who are largely European, they only think of Kanaks as house girls or of Wallisians as builder’s labourers,” he said. “EO joined the Avenir ticket for the government of New Caledonia led by Thierry Santa and so one of their party is now a member of the government. At that point, we thought they’d chosen sides. But the radicalisation of language from the Loyalists pushed the Wallisians away bit by bit, to the point where they formed the parliamentary group with Union Calédonienne within the Congress.”
UC’s Roch Wamytan told Islands Business there were the two underlying elements that forged this parliamentary alliance: “Firstly, we share common values, the values of Pacific peoples and of Christianity like respect, hospitality, compassion, family. The second element is that we want to fight against social, cultural and economic inequality. This takes place in the schools, where our children do not do as well, or in the cultural sphere, where our dignity is not respected. In the economic sphere, there are issues of housing and social welfare that bind together this Pacific majority.”
There are more pragmatic reasons as well. To obtain staffing and financial resources, parties or coalitions in the 54-member Congress must have at least six members. Milakulo Tukumuli says that the decision to join the UC-FLNKS group was not a shift towards independence, but a strategic decision to build his party’s capacity.
“Because today we only have three members in the Congress, we can’t constitute a parliamentary group and we don’t have the means to work effectively,” Tukumuli said. “In every parliament of the world, if you’re an MP, you have staff who can help you with the job. But in New Caledonia, if you’re not in a group, you don’t have that support.
“Beyond this, if you’re not in a group, you don’t have the right to sit on parliamentary committees within the Congress. Now, as members of the UC-FLNKS group, we can participate in all the 11-member committees. Last year, each committee was divided 6-5. This year, because we are members of the group, each committee has five supporters of independence, five loyalists and one member of EO. That’s more representative of the Congress.”
Despite this, Roch Wamytan believes that EO’s decision is a crucial shift as the country moves to a decision on its future political status: “When EO voted for me as Speaker, it was a sign to the Wallisian community that they should not be scared of Kanak.”
Voting in referendum
In less than two weeks’ time, more than 180,000 people in New Caledonia will participate in the second referendum on self-determination under the Noumea Accord.
Because voting is not compulsory and the special referendum electorate is restricted to long-term residents, Tukumuli says EO is calling on people to turn out on 4 October: “We’re certainly telling people that they should go out and vote, because the future of those people who can’t register to vote depends on those who are actually voting. Go and vote - that’s the first thing we’ve said! The second thing we’ve said is vote for who you want, for the future that is good for you, and for New Caledonia tomorrow.”
However the party is not campaigning for either Yes or No, arguing that voters in the Wallisian and Futunan communities must make their own decision.
“We believe that this choice belongs to each individual,” Tukumuli said. “People can certainly ask us what independence might mean for the country, or what staying with France might mean. But the motto adopted by our party is ‘Be the captain of your own destiny.’ It’s up to everyone to decide what sort of New Caledonia they want for the future.”
Philippe Gomes suggests this policy could foreshadow an historic shift: “For the first time in the history of New Caledonia, the whole of the Wallisian community is not mobilising to vote No against independence. So on 4 October, it will be very interesting to see whether there is a shift towards abstention or towards Yes to independence. The mood in the community is very different to what we’ve seen before.”
Despite this, Tukumuli is very clear about his own position: “I’ve already made my personal opinion clear, but it doesn’t bind my party: I want New Caledonia to remain within France. Independence shouldn’t be the starting point; it should be the finish line. If we are capable of being independent, then choose independence, but if people say we’re ready for independence, I don’t agree.”
Tukumuli explained that EO’s executive includes both supporters and opponents of independence, so the party has pragmatically avoided divisions that would damage their long-term game plan: “The majority of people in the Wallisian and Tahitian communities do not support independence and would prefer that New Caledonia remains part of France. That’s the truth. But we don’t take a position in support of France, because that will scare away people who support independence. People are afraid though, and want to know whether they must vote. I hope that one day they won’t need people like us to tell them whether or not they should vote to stay with France.”
Will the islander communities living in New Caledonia, from Wallis and Futuna, Tahiti and Vanuatu, eventually throw in their lot with the Kanak people, recognising the pan-Pacific ties that the late Epeli Hau’ofa championed in ‘Our Sea of Islands’?
Tukumuli says his vision is to get people working together, moving beyond old habits: “This is something that people must understand: to work with the independence movement is not the same as working for independence.”
He despairs that sections of the European community will punish any leader that tries to bridge the divide between supporters and opponents of independence.
“It’s important to say that when loyalists have tried to engage with the independence movement, they’ve been punished by voters at the next opportunity,” he said. “In 2011, hoping to work with the independence movement, Pierre Frogier supported the decision to raise two flags outside public buildings, the French flag and the flag of Kanaky. Look at what happened afterwards: he was punished by voters in 2014. In 2014, Calédonie ensemble came to the fore under Philippe Gomes. Throughout his term of office, he tried to work with the independence movement and for that he was punished by voters in the 2019 congressional elections.”
An older generation of Polynesians remember violent clashes with Kanak youth in the mid-1980s, when Right-wing agitators mobilised young, unemployed Wallisians as strong-arm militias against the FLNKS. In more recent times, there have been Wallisian-Kanak disputes in communities on the outskirts of Noumea, with conflicts over jobs, land, housing and welfare rights. Will significant numbers of Wallisian voters transcend these historic grievances?
New Caledonia’s President Thierry Santa told Islands Business that there is a section of the Wallisian and Futunan community who are more open to the independence movement’s language.
“There’s a fluidity that you can see amongst the younger generation that you don’t see with their elders,” he said. “Today’s Polynesians may be too young to have known the difficult times, with past clashes and tension between the Wallisian community and the Kanak. So they are more carried away by the sort of rhetoric that talks about ‘We the peoples of the Pacific, we can get by without France.’”
Santa sees this shift reflected in the even-handed position taken by EO for the referendum: “I don’t think this is a major shift towards independence. They are very well aware that a majority of their electorate are opponents of independence, so they maintain this policy of ambiguity for the moment. I don’t know if this will be maintained right to the end. We’ll see.”