The decision of the French government to organize the self-determination referendum in New Caledonia on December 12, despite the resolution of the independence parties not to participate, is a reckless political gamble with potentially disastrous consequences.
The referendum will be the third and last consultation organized within the framework of the 1998 Nouméa accord – successor to the Matignon accords which put an end to the instability and violence between the Kanak independence movement and the local “loyalists” and the French state in 1988. By organizing this month’s referendum without the participation of the indigenous Kanak people, who overwhelmingly support independence, France is undermining the innovative and peaceful process of decolonization of the past 30 years, based on the neutrality of the French State and seeking consensus between opposing local political parties.
One of the reasons for the independence demand to postpone the referendum until the end of 2022 is fears that the French presidential elections in April 2022 could lead to national political interference. In 2019, the French government and political parties in New Caledonia agreed that the referendum should not take place in the immediate vicinity of the presidential elections for this reason. In June 2021, the government broke this agreement and unilaterally set the date for the referendum. Although within the remit of France, this goes against the consensual basis of the Noumea accord.
A key factor influencing Emmanuel Macron’s change from neutrality is the growing possibility of an independence victory. “Loyalist” voters won the two previous referendums in 2018 and 2020, but the vote for independence fell from 43.3% to 46.7%. The group of pro-independence voters who previously abstained and are newly registered means the prospect of independence is now more real than ever.
Added to this is the weakening of France’s strategic position in the Indo-Pacific following the announcement of the Aukus alliance and Australia’s withdrawal from its submarine contract with France. The independence of New Caledonia ostensibly threatens to further diminish France’s position in the region.
However, scuttling the process of decolonization would not only be reactionary, but also shortsighted. The independence parties advocate a close association, a partnership or an “interdependent” relationship with France in the event of independence. There is little to think that France could not preserve its strategic interests with an independent New Caledonia.
Another interrelated factor is Macron’s electoral calculation in the run-up to presidential elections. The main opponents of Macron are expected to come from the French far right, an electorate mostly in favor of maintaining French New Caledonia.
The dangerous political game played by Macron vis-à-vis New Caledonia recalls the decisions taken by the French leaders in the 1980s who ignored the independence opposition, instrumentalized the future of New Caledonia in the arena national policy and gave rise to some of the bloodiest exchanges of the time. .
The main reason why independence parties and the Kanak Customary Senate wish to postpone the referendum is the devastating local impact of the Covid-19 pandemic since September 2021. With Kanak communities in customary mourning, an effective campaign cannot take place . By invoking an improvement in the health situation as the basis of its decision to maintain the date of the referendum, France has shown a lack of understanding and respect which goes against another founding element of the agreement. of Nouméa: recognition of Kanak identity and custom.
With the probable abstention of most pro-independence voters, the victory of the “loyalist” vote against independence goes without saying. The legal validity of the referendum is unlikely to be contested in French law. However, without the participation of the pro-independence electorate, the legitimacy of the result is compromised.
At the international level, in light of this result and the Kanak’s continued assertion of their right to self-determination, New Caledonia will likely remain on the list of non-self-governing territories of the UN Special Committee on Decolonization. . France will once again be a colonial power fueling instability in New Caledonia and the Indo-Pacific through its reluctance to peacefully decolonize.
At the local level, following the referendum, the French government set a transition period of 18 months during which it intends to engage with the separatist and separatist parties to prepare a new “consensual project” for New Caledonia. However, an effective dialogue will be difficult if not impossible to establish given the inevitable deadlock on the legitimacy of the referendum and the shattered trust between the Kanaks and the state.
France’s exit from neutrality and the consensual approach that maintained peace for three decades risks reviving the violence that ravaged New Caledonia in the 1980s. As at the time, the threat of violence comes today supporters of independence and supporters of independence.
The Noumea Accord was written into the French constitution to protect it from the vagaries of national politics. However, they seem to have caught up with him in his last hour. New Caledonia is on the brink of a volatile socio-political crisis, with no discernible resolution in sight.
- Rowena Dickins Morrison is an independent political scientist and lawyer who has worked at the Australian National University of Canberra, the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris and the Jean Monnet University in Saint-Etienne.
- Adrian Muckle lectures on Pacific history at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand
- Benoît Trépied is an anthropologist with the French Center National de la Recherche Scientifique at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris