New Caledonia says “Non” to Independence … For Now

7 October 2020 Leighton G. Luke, Research Manager, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Background

The second of up to three possible referenda on the future status of New Caledonia was held on 4 October. Asked whether they ‘want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?’[1], 53.3 per cent of voters opted to remain a French overseas collectivity (collectivité d’outre-mer), with the remaining 46.7 per cent choosing independence.

At a margin of 6.6 per cent, or roughly 10,000 votes, the result was greeted positively by both camps, with loyalists celebrating the continued link with France and pro-independence groups buoyed by increased support in the closer than expected result.

Comment

Enshrined in the May 1998 Noumea Accords as a long-term roadmap in response to the violence experienced ten years prior between pro-independence indigenous Kanaks, Caledonia-born residents of European descent (Caldoches), and French security forces (“les Événements”; the euphemistically named “Events”), up to three referenda are to be held between 2018 and 2022 to decide New Caledonia’s political status.

In addition to an increase in support for the “oui” vote, the 2020 referendum also recorded an increase in voter turnout: 85.6 per cent of 180,899 eligible voters cast their vote, with long lines at polling stations across the territory. In 2018, voter turnout stood at 81 per cent; 56.7 per cent of voters chose “no” and 43.3 per cent voted “yes”. Among the population of 290,000, only Kanaks and long-term residents are eligible to vote in the referenda.

This year’s referendum also confirmed a phenomenon seen in 2018: in general, those communes (municipalities) with a high proportion of Kanak residents voted strongly in favour of independence, while those that are home to a majority of Caldoches and other ethnicities voted equally strongly against independence. As always, there are exceptions to that rule – ‘not all Kanaks are pro-independence, and not all non-Kanaks are loyalists’ – added to which are voters from Wallis and Futuna, another overseas collectivity located 1,900 kilometres to the north-east, and who generally tend to be “no” voters.

As a general rule, at the provincial level, Kanak-dominated Nord (North) and Îles (Islands) Provinces voted “yes”, while the European-dominated Sud (South), also home to the more multi-ethnic capital, Noumea, was a bastion of equally strong support for “no”. Barring some unexpected and large-scale changes of residence among the citizens of New Caledonia, such voting patterns are likely to be replicated in a future referendum and it will behove all parties to work together in a co-operative spirit and actively tamper down any hints of polarisation.

Pro-independence leaders have indicated that they will seek a third referendum. President Emmanuel Macron has gone on the record as being willing to organise a third referendum, if that were the wish of Caledonians, and called upon the various political forces to draw up their vision for the future of New Caledonia.

Equally, Prime Minister Jean Castex has promised [in French] to soon meet with those willing ‘to work together to continue the process of dialogue and peace at work for thirty years’ and that ‘in accordance with the Noumea Accords, the government will respect the choice of elected Caledonians to request, or not, a third consultation.’

If a third vote is held and the results of the 2018 and 2020 referenda are any guide, the result in 2022 is likely to be even closer and, potentially, the aftermath considerably more fraught.

[1]Voulez-vous que la Nouvelle-Calédonie accède à la pleine souveraineté et devienne indépendante?”

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