Managing the status of New Caledonia after the Pacific territory’s controversial final independence referendum will require a careful balancing act, David A Chappell writes.
In December 2021, New Caledonians were faced with their third and final independence referendum provided for by the 1998 Nouméa Accord. The vote was meant to provide clarity about the future of the Pacific territory, which was first colonised by France in 1853, following a period of violence between 1976-1988. Unfortunately, it did anything but.
The referendum proved controversial after a request by pro-independence parties to delay the vote on account of the devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic was denied by French President Emmanuel Macron. In response, the independence movement called on their supporters to boycott the vote.
The result was a landslide victory for the French loyalists, with approximately 96.5 per cent of votes cast against independence, but a referendum in which more than half of Caledonia’s registered voters abstained.
With such a large proportion of New Caledonians seemingly questioning the legitimacy of the referendum, the territory’s future is still clouded by uncertainty. So what happens next?
In the wake of the vote, the French Council of State rejected a legal challenge attempting to dismiss the result as illegitimate. According to the council, the fact that only 43 per cent of eligible voters participated did not ‘invalidate the sincerity of the vote’.
Loyalist Philippe Dunoyer from the Caledonia Together party claimed the ruling ‘put an end to the Nouméa Accord’.
He said the first target for change would be the restricted electoral rolls, which have limited voting on key issues to those with New Caledonian citizenship since the 1990s. This has meant that 40,000 French residents, who pay taxes in the territory and in some cases were born there, have been restricted from voting.
Despite Dunoyer’s claims, however, it seems that the Accord may remain in effect for the foreseeable future. Enshrined in the French constitution, the Accord describes the transfer of administrative power to local authorities as ‘irreversible’. According to Mathias Chauchat, a law professor at the University of New Caledonia, there is a contradiction between the irreversibility of this power transfer and the notion of the accord lapsing.
“The two concepts cannot be made to coexist,” he said. “Either the Accord is void or it is irreversible.”
The chair of a delegation of the French Senate Law Commission who visited New Caledonia agreed, saying that it will remain in effect until a new agreement has been reached. If that fails, the ‘irreversible’ delegation of self-governing powers is protected, according to the French Senate Law Commission.
Reaching a new agreement may be difficult, however, given the number of parties and amount of division on the issue of sovereignty in New Calendonia.
Even among pro-independence parties, there are diverging visions of territorial sovereignty. The Palika party suggested negotiating an agreement of sovereign independence in ‘partnership’ with France, which could be ratified by a United Nations-run referendum. On the other hand, the largest pro-independence party Caledonian Union still prefers complete independence, also through a United Nations-administered vote.
Meanwhile, moderates in the anti-independence camp – such as the Caledonia Together party – have often shared the concerns of the indigenous Kanak people about the management of the nickel-dependent economy, the importance of expanding trade and diplomatic relations in the region, and the need to address the high cost of living and inequality.
Caledonia Together founder Philippe Gomès envisioned a self-governing New Caledonian ‘nation’ that remains officially part of France. He argued that the referendum question should not have asked for a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to independence, but that a third, less polarising option should have been offered.
Other local politicians have suggested independence in ‘association’ with France, a United Nations concept that sites between full integration and complete independence, which has been adopted by several Pacific Island states. The Cook Islands and Niue have a such a relationship with New Zealand, meaning their people are citizens of both countries, they use New Zealand currency, and they receive financial aid from their larger Pacific neighbour.
Yet, hardline anti-independence groups like the Future with Confidence group want a more radical post-Accord agenda that recognises the cultural identity of the mostly non-Kanak Southern Province, favours majority rule in the cabinet, and expands the electorate to include new French migrants.
Kanak leaders fear that if such changes to New Caledonian citizenship are introduced, they would be demographically drowned and essentially recolonised. Indigenous Kanak people remain the largest ethnic group at about 41 per cent of the total population, but are still short of a majority – and their representation would only dilute further if French migrants were offered citizenship.
A potential game changer to these demographic politics, however, is Polynesian migration to New Caledonia. The 2019 census showed that Polynesians comprised approximately 12 per cent of the territory’s population, meaning that together Polynesian and Kanak are in majority.
Whilst Polynesians have long made up a significant portion of the population, since the late 1980s they have become an increasing political force via the establishment of a number of minor political parties, such as Oceanian Awakening (OA).
In 2019, OA won seats in municipal councils, the southern provincial assembly, the Congress, and the executive cabinet, and its stated aim is to be an independent ‘communitarian’ party that ‘go[es] beyond hateful, radical and racist discourses’.
Whether this Pasifika demographic majority tips the domestic political balance in favour of Kanak pro-independence groups remains to be seen, and to this point OA have remained neutral on the question of New Caledonian sovereignty, despite supporting Palika in their formation of coalition government.
However, the outlook for post-referendum discussions is already looking bleak. In September 2022, France’s new overseas minister Jean-François Carenco announced that no more referendums would be held, and instead invited all sides to discuss the territory’s future status in Paris in October. Pro-independence groups have refused to attend, maintaining that they will only talk to negotiate New Caledonia’s transition to full sovereignty.
In the challenging times ahead, it’s important that the French government heed the words of former overseas minister Edouard Philippe, who said that ‘the art of peace’ is rooted in ‘uninterrupted dialogue’ and a ‘custom of working together’.