The upcoming New Caledonian independence referendum on the 4th of November 2018 is the outcome of a 30 years-long process of gradual decolonisation.
New Caledonia was a colony of France between 1853 and 1946. It became a ‘territoire d’outre-mer’ with a special status within the French constitution granting it more autonomy than the other French overseas territories. New Caledonia has its own assembly and government, and legislation needs to be ratified by a special Kanak senate. Located 2000 km east of Australia, New Caledonia is made of a principal island and smaller isles of around 18 500 km². It hosts a population of less than 280,000 composed of 39% self-declared Kanak, and 27% ‘Europeans’. The rest of the population is composed of a mix of ethnicities originating from the nearby Polynesian Islands and South East Asia according to the 2014 census.
Following violence between Kanak independentists and French authorities in 1988, the Matignon Accord granted an independence referendum to be held following a 10-year period to allow for New Caledonian socio-economic development. It was postponed by the Nouméa Accord in 1998 which granted New Caledonia more autonomy and set a referendum to be held between 2014 and 2018. This accord was approved in the same year by 72 percent (with a 74 percent turnout) of the New-Caledonian population by referendum.
This independence referendum is not the first to be held in New Caledonia. In 1987, the Kanak pro-independence parties boycotted the first independence referendum organised by the French Government. The independentists did not agree with the franchise proposed by the French authorities which allowed any person resident on the island for over three years to participate. Given their colonised status in international law, the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) argued that only the indigenous population should be allowed to vote. The franchise put in place by the French government made the Kanak population an electoral minority and many boycotted the referendum process. The referendum resulted in 1.7% votes in favour of independence with a turnout of 59 percent.
This time around the franchise has been amended and differs from standard elections to only include those of “New Caledonian” citizenship. This citizenship is additional and separate from French citizenship and can be acquired by non-natives following 10 years of residency. New Caledonians will be asked “Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?”
The two main pro-independence parties, the Caledonian Union (UC) and FLNKS have accepted the referendum process and will campaign in the coming months in favour of sovereignty. The smaller pro-independence Labour Party, however, called for a boycott based on the franchise and is critical of how the French authorities are conducting the process. The slow registration to vote among the Kanak population, especially of younger Kanak, has been pointed out by UN observers who called on the French government to do more to ensure those eligible, but absent from the general electoral list, are reached.
In the case of New Caledonia, time has been conducive to peace, lessening tensions between the diverse local population. The independence referendum however opens old wounds and lays bare remaining inequalities and the difficulty of reconciling a colonial reality with economic pragmatism.
The referendum is unlikely to put an end to the issue of the constitutional arrangements of New Caledonia and the position of the Kanak people. Indeed, while France brings a degree of economic stability and higher standards of living than neighbouring independent islands such as Vanuatu or Fiji, strong inequalities persist between the Kanaks and the rest of New Caledonia’s population. The Kanak youth in particular faces insecurity, unemployment and suffers from high rates of alcohol and drug dependencies.
For France, New Caledonia represents an important strategic presence in the Pacific Ocean and it is also home to one-quarter of global nickel deposits and the world’s second-largest exporter of the mineral. The independentists argue that such resources can make for a viable country and open itself to Asia. On the ‘loyalist’ side, campaigners against independence warn of New Caledonia becoming a de-facto colony of China under independence.
According to the polls, around 60 percent of New Caledonians oppose independence, a figure in line with the electoral support for non-independentist parties, while around 18 percent remain undecided.
A No victory however does not mean an end to the independence debate. The Nouméa Accord includes a procedure for a third of members of the new Caledonian Congress to organise new consultations on the status of the island within two to four years following the first referendum. We may therefore see a third or fourth referendum taking place before 2023.