As the country prepares for a referendum on 4 November, the scars of colonisation are still raw
Just over 16,700km from Paris, on the edge of the southwest Pacific Ocean, lies a little piece of France. In New Caledonia, locals eat croissants for breakfast, crêpes for lunch and in the afternoons play pétanque in shady city squares. They drive on the right, speak fluent French and the outskirts of the capital Nouméa are dotted with hypermarchés.
But this far-flung outpost of Gallic life might not be officially French for much longer. On Sunday, residents of the cluster of islands will vote on their future in an independence referendum. For the locals of mining town Thio, which lies two hours east of Nouméa, that moment cannot come soon enough.
Thio was once the shining jewel of France’s Pacific colonial project. The state-run mining company, SLN, began its operations there in 1880, less than three decades after New Caledonia became an overseas territory of France.
But now its residents, who are predominantly New Caledonia’s indigenous Kanaks, say economic gloom has fallen over their once powerful mining community. They hope this will change if the territory votes to cut ties with France.
“In Thio we have endured 165 years of exploitation. And we still live in misery,” said Aurélien Calixte at a local rally for pro-independence activists.
The rally is attended by a a few dozen people, who are there to listen to local leaders of the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front, or FLNKS. The town is otherwise empty.