While France has undertaken to work with both sides and to respect the outcome of the vote, if this year’s referendum results in a “yes” to New Caledonian independence, the loss of territory and influence will not be welcomed. For partners such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States, a potentially reduced French presence in the south-west Pacific at a time of growing Chinese influence in the region is likely to be viewed with some concern.
New Caledonia has welcomed its new High Commissioner ahead of preparations for the third and final referendum on the territory’s independence from France, to be held on 12 December 2021.
Although his appointment was announced on 19 May, Patrice Faure officially assumed his duties as Paris’s representative in New Caledonia on 12 June, after completing hotel quarantine, with the customary official ceremony and wreath-laying at the Bir Hakeim Cenotaph in central Noumea.
Reportedly an accomplished administrator with experience in the overseas départements of French Guiana and Mayotte, Mr Faure is, however, a newcomer to New Caledonia – politically, a sui generis, or special, collectivity in a class of its own – and will need to draw on all of his management skills as the referendum gets closer.
The third and final of the three referenda under the 1998 Noumea Accord must be held by October 2022. In New Caledonia, the announcement of the 12 December referendum date by Overseas Territories Minister Sebastien Lecornu brought praise from anti-separatist parties and criticism from their pro-independence counterparts, who have been lobbying for it to be held in September 2022, after all of France goes to the polls in April-May for presidential and legislative elections.
Among the challenges confronting Mr Faure and Mr Lecornu in the lead up to December is the difficulty of bringing together the various parties in the territorial legislature, le Congrès de la Nouvelle-Calédonie, to work with Paris in putting together the framework for the referendum. As was seen during the February 2021 collapse of the territorial government and the late-May to early-June discussions in Paris between the French Government and pro- and anti-independence representatives, that task is further complicated by disagreements and splits within a number of the various parties, all of whom will need to work together to achieve a peaceful, incident-free voting period. To that end, Mr Faure has pledged [French] that:
We [the French Government] are always open to discussion; it is not a question of saying that everything is settled. I will listen to UNI and to all the stakeholders so that together we discuss how we are going to put down an agenda, maintain the dialogue….
The pro-independence parties, among the largest of which is the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste, or FLNKS), are increasingly confident of securing a oui vote in this referendum. Reflecting the longstanding economic and political divide between Europeans (the majority of whom are native-born Caldoches, with recent immigrants from metropolitan France ineligible to vote in the independence referenda), and indigenous ethnic Kanaks, in each of the two previous referenda the pro-independence camp gained support, boosted by growing turnout among Kanak voters. The numbers of those voting non to independence fell from 56.7 per cent in 2018 to 53.3 per cent in 2020.
Regardless of the outcome in December, the French authorities have indicated that it will be followed by a two-year transition period, during which the framework of either a soon-to-be-independent country or a collectivité territoriale with a presumably even greater degree of autonomy than at present, will need to be established.
While Paris has undertaken to work with both sides and to respect the outcome of the vote, if this year’s referendum results in a “yes” to independence, the loss of territory and, potentially, influence will not be welcomed; nor would the boost that it would give to pro-independence groups in French Polynesia. For partners such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States, France is a valued source of stability and security in the wider Indo-Pacific and a reduced French presence in the south-west Pacific at a time of growing Chinese influence in the region is likely to be viewed with some concern.