The move threatens France’s 30-year peace process in the semi-autonomous territory, as well as stability in its preeminent possession of the Pacific. A boycott of the vote by the indigenous Kanak population could potentially bring the territory back to the turmoil of the 1980s, with regional consequences.
Why is another referendum on independence taking place?
The independence movement of indigenous origin strengthened in New Caledonia in the 1970s and early 1980s, as France canceled the autonomy provisions it had accepted and encouraged immigration from other regions of France to outnumber the supporters of independence.
In the 1980s, the frustration of the Kanaks led to violent protests in the territory and a boycott of an independence referendum in 1987. This was followed by deadly shootings between Kanaks and French militias months later. during the French presidential elections.
The Matignon / Oudinot agreement in 1988, negotiated by the French government between pro and anti-independence groups, ended the violence. This was followed by the Noumea Accord in 1998, which promised a three-vote process for independence.
Read also: Explainer: The referendum on the independence of New Caledonia and its impact on the region
The first two referendums, organized in 2018 and 2020, recorded record participation rates (over 80%) and a slight majority to stay with France. There was, however, a large (and growing) base of Kanak support for independence, dropping from 43.3% to 46.7%. Only 10,000 votes separated the two parties in 2020.
A third vote was to be tight, with both parties courting the 25,000 people who abstained in 2020 (out of 180,000 eligible voters in total). However, the Kanak “non-participation” would render the vote politically void, as was the case in 1987.
This final vote can take place any time before October 2022. Loyalist parties that support keeping part of France have favored an earlier vote to consolidate their majority and allow a rapid recovery of the stagnant economy.
The separatist parties preferred a later vote to maximize their chances of obtaining a majority.
To avoid an overlap with the French elections next year, the French government chose December 12 for the referendum on the opposition of the separatist parties.
France takes a less neutral approach
During the first two campaigns, France scrupulously respected impartiality and invited international observers. For this final vote, he was less neutral.
For starters, discussions on preparing for the final vote did not include all the main leaders of the pro-independence parties. The paper required by French law explaining the consequences of the referendum to voters this time favored the no, to the point that the loyalists used it as a campaign brochure.
The French government has also selectively commissioned and published opinion polls on France’s role in New Caledonia, while local media have highlighted the potential negative effects of independence on health and other services. .
Visiting Tahiti in July, President Emmanuel Macron spoke forcefully of the threats weighing on the small isolated islands of the Pacific without France protecting them. France is also deploying more security personnel to New Caledonia for this year’s vote.
Read also: Why the instability of New Caledonia is not only a problem for France
A disturbing stalemate with the Kanaks
The impact of the COVID pandemic played a major role in this year’s referendum.
New Caledonia had seen few cases and no deaths since the start of the pandemic until the Delta variant entered the territory in September. Since then, there have been nearly 300 deaths, most of them in the Kanak community.
Citing Kanak mourning rites involving lengthy community mourning, pro-independence leaders called for a postponement of the December 12 vote, highlighting the potential effect on the campaign and participation.
The Customary Senate, the assembly of Kanak regional councils, decreed a 12-month period of mourning, while pro-independence leaders threatened the Kanaks with “non-participation” in the vote.
However, the French Minister for Overseas Territories, Sébastien Lecornu, confirmed the December date. He said France’s non-compulsory voting system would allow anyone to choose not to participate if they wished.
The reaction among the Kanaks was strong. Independence leaders reaffirmed their call for peaceful non-participation, avoiding the term “boycott” because of its association with the boycott of the 1987 referendum and the violence that followed. They note, however, that their 30,000 young Kanak supporters would not necessarily obey.
They also formed a new strategic committee to prepare a response to France’s decision to vote. One leader called the decision “an apparent declaration of war on the Kanaks.”
On December 5, a group made up largely of Kanaks called on France’s highest court of appeal to urgently review the decision and postpone the vote after the French elections in June.
The separatist parties have said they will challenge the result if the referendum takes place and that they will not participate in the discussions on the future of the territory that France has proposed for the day after the vote.
What the referendum means for the region
If there is instability or violence in New Caledonia, or if the result of a referendum is contested, it will have an impact on the region.
France’s role in the Pacific will again be called into question, as in the 1980s. Then, regional governments drew international attention to the way in which France deals with requests for the decolonization of its territories and its nuclear tests. in French Polynesia, ultimately leading France to change its habits.
Read also: 315 nuclear bombs and permanent suffering: the shameful history of nuclear tests in Australia and the Pacific
France’s revised policies and serious diplomatic efforts have enabled it to forge new partnerships with Australia, New Zealand and the governments of the Pacific Islands. Thus, France’s treatment of its overseas territories ultimately forms the basis of its role in the region and its Indo-Pacific vision.
Regional leaders and analysts urged the French government to rethink its handling of this decisive vote.
The Melanesian spearhead group, made up of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and the New Caledonia independence coalition, called for the referendum to be postponed to the United Nations.
A “Pacific Elders Group” also wrote to Macron, asking for respect for Kanak custom in mourning. The Prime Minister of Vanuatu Bob Loughman and the independence leader of French Polynesia Oscar Temaru gave their vocal support to the independence leaders.
And at the end of last month, more than 60 international academics with years of experience working on New Caledonia expressed concern over the date of the referendum in an open letter published by Le Monde.
For France, Australia and the rest of the region, the New Caledonian referendum may not be the democratic beacon for the future it was meant to be, but rather a sign of instability.