A Kanak independence flag flies on the territory of the Gossanah tribe on April 23, 2018, on Ouvea Island in the French overseas territory of New Caledonia. (Theo Rouby/AFP/Getty Images)

Paris and the political leaders who hold sway over this South Pacific island chain are 10,000 miles away. The question now for New Caledonia is whether to keep these faraway bonds or splinter off as the world’s newest nation.

On Sunday, an electorate of some 175,000 will participate in a landmark referendum on independence from France — a decision that touches on major issues including the economy and cultural identity.

According to recent polls, New Caledonians are expected to vote overwhelmingly to remain among France’s “outre-mer,” or overseas territories, a modern-day relic of the once-vast French empire.

The pro-French side is so confident that it is aiming for a wide enough margin of victory to effectively eliminate any possibility of another independence referendum.

But the vote also highlights an issue that will not be resolved at the ballot box: the long-standing complaint by some of the indigenous Kanak people that the archipelago has ceded too much to the descendants of French colonists and their culture.

Grand Chief Bergé Kawa, 71, has a specific reason that he will vote to secede.

At the back of his hut, hidden between the looming columns of pine trees and coconut palms, Kawa keeps the skull of his great-uncle Chief Ataï — leader of an 1878 rebellion against French colonizers for which he was beheaded.


Kanak Chief Bergé Kawa speaks during a ceremony on Aug. 28, 2014, in Paris, before the return to New Caledonia of the skull of the Kanak chief Ataï, his great-uncle, who was killed in 1878 fighting French colonialism. (Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2014, Kawa recovered the skull from Paris after it was found in the city’s botanical gardens. It had been taken to France 136 years earlier, displayed in its museums as a trophy of colonial conquest, and then was lost in the gardens in Paris after World War II.

“It makes my skin crawl,” Kawa said.

But, though he has brought Ataï back to New Caledonia, Kawa cannot bury his remains. The tribal land where he believes his great-uncle should be interred was confiscated from his clan over a century ago. It is now privately owned.

“We no longer live on our land,” said Kawa, who faces charges for forcing an unwelcome French visitor from his property. “It’s the white people who live here now. . . . Of course we want independence.”

New Caledonia, hundreds of miles east of Australia, was annexed by France in 1853. It remains one of 13 French overseas territories around the globe. The last French territory to claim independence was Djibouti, more than 40 years ago.

New Caledonia’s referendum is the climax of a 30-year process to repair ethnic tensions between French descendants and the indigenous Kanak people. In 1988, a three-way peace treaty — ­involving the French state, anti-independence and pro-independence separatists — was signed to end a bloody civil war, referred to as “the Events” by locals.

The accord delineated a transfer of some powers from France to New Caledonia and a steady path toward an independence ­referendum.


The burial of 19 Kanak people killed on May 8, 1988, in an assault three days earlier by French security forces in the Gossanah cave, where Kanaks had been holding several police officers hostage. (Remy Moyen/AFP/Getty Images)

But for tribal chiefs such as Kawa, the deep fractures left by colonialism are difficult to overcome without Kanak sovereignty.

“They talk about a common destiny,” Kawa said. “But how can you have a common destiny without first recognizing us, the people of this land?”

On New Caledonia’s streets, there is little sign that the society is roiled by the question over its future — apart from the flags of blue, green, red and yellow that flank New Caledonia’s highways. The flags belong to the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front, or FLNKS, a coalition of separatist parties campaigning for a “yes” vote.

The FLNKS was once considered a militant organization by the French state for its involvement in the civil war, though members now hold influential positions in the territory’s provincial governments.

Tribal leaders often accuse the indigenous officials serving in provincial posts of being agents of the French colonial system and abandoning the native chiefs, who claim ultimate authority over the land.

But Sylvain Pabouty, an elected FLNKS minister of South Province, said indigenous separatists must engage with the territory’s politics to dampen France’s colonial influence.

“When the government passes public policy, they do so as an extension of their colonial past,” Pabouty said. “We have to propose a social project that radically changes this colonial way of doing things.”

The “social project” generally involves policies to improve the lives of New Caledonia’s poorest Kanaks: regulating water supply in city slums, building hospitals that are accessible to rural populations, opening mines near isolated communes to spur local economies.

In Noumea, the Pacific’s cruise-ship capital and the administrative capital of New Caledonia, economic life is irrigated by the French state.

France transfers $1.5 billion to the territory each year, which in part sustains the wages of Noumea’s civil servants, who can earn up to 1.8 percent more than they would in mainland France. New Caledonia’s gross domestic product is higher than that of all other provinces in France, except for the Paris region.

The economic benefits are largely spurring the vote against independence.

“We have faces of a thousand colors here,” anti-independence politician Thierry Santa said at a recent rally in Noumea for his Republican Party of New Caledonia. “And despite these differences between our skins, for a great number of us, our hearts still beat for France.”


A police post in the settlement of Fayaoue in New Caledonia’s Loyalty Islands province. In 1988, Kanak backers of independence attacked the station, killing four police officers and triggering a deadly hostage crisis. (Theo Rouby/AFP/Getty Images)