France under Pacific scrutiny after New Caledonia referendum impasse
17 Dec 2021|

New Caledonia’s third independence referendum under the 1998 Noumea Accord was held on 12 December as planned by France, over the opposition of the indigenous-based independence parties. Those parties had called for non-participation if the vote proceeded on that date, given the impact of Covid-19 deaths on Kanak communities and their requirement for extended mourning rites.

The results show that their call was heeded by more than half of eligible voters. With a turnout of 43.9%, a mere 3.5% favoured independence and 96.5% supported staying with France. This compared with a turnout of 85.7% for the second referendum in 2020, when the pro-France vote was 53.3% and support for independence just under 47%. In the first referendum in 2018, with 81% turnout, 56.7% voted to stay with France and 43.3% voted for independence.

French President Emmanuel Macron declared that New Caledonians had ‘massively pronounced against acceding to full sovereignty and independence in a context of strong abstention’. He said ‘the majority of Caledonians’ had ‘freely decided’ to stay within the Republic, making France the more ‘beautiful’. He said that the Noumea Accord had legally expired, and foreshadowed discussions to build a common destiny ‘in this Indo-Pacific region in full reconstruction and subject to major tensions’ and to face the challenges ‘in this Pacific Ocean which is an integral part of our national space’.

France’s overseas territories minister arrived in New Caledonia two days before the vote, and has made numerous public statements urging discussion, if only on pressing health and financial matters.

Local loyalists have claimed their third victory and indicated that they would participate in discussions about the future, as the Noumea Accord specifies should occur after three ‘no’ votes on independence.

Independence parties, united as never before in a strategy committee including trade unions and customary elders, reacted strongly. The committee denied the validity of the vote, which it said was against the spirit and letter of the Noumea Accord, the decolonisation process and UN resolutions. It said independence parties wouldn’t participate in discussions until after next year’s French national elections. Party leader Rock Wamytan had presented their case for postponement to the UN just days before the vote and has since described the outcome as null and void. Another party leader, Charles Washetine, said parties would contest the result in the region and internationally, would never discuss ‘yet another agreement on a statute within the French Republic’ and would proceed with their independence plan ‘whatever it costs’.

Regional leaders have also reacted. The Melanesian Spearhead Group Secretariat in a communiqué described the vote as against Article 1 of the UN charter and UN resolution 1514 on self-determination, warned against imposing the result on the Kanak people, and called on the UN to engage with France and New Caledonia.

The Pacific Islands Forum sent a ministerial committee to observe the vote but it didn’t wait for its final report to comment. On 14 December, the committee issued a statement noting the significant non-participation and the importance of civic participation as an integral component of any democracy. It also said that the spirit in which the referendum was conducted ‘weighs heavily’ on the Noumea Accord and the self-determination process.

The Australian government has remained markedly silent after this vote.* Immediately after each of the first two referendums, it issued a statement noting the vote and supporting the process.

In New Caledonia, this referendum shows that divisions run more deeply than ever over independence and the territory’s future. Things are at an impasse at least until after the French national elections next spring. As Macron indicated, the Noumea Accord has legally expired. France notionally set a deadline of June 2023 for a transition to whatever comes next, and wants discussions.

Independence parties aren’t in a hurry. Even though they lose the benefits inherent in vote-weighting provisions (restricting voter eligibility only to longstanding residents) that expire with the accord, indigenous Kanaks aren’t going anywhere. While official population figures are fraught with issues relating to definitions of identity, the Kanak population has increased from 40% to at least 41% in the 10 years to 2019, while the European population has declined from 29% to 24%, and the territory has recorded high rates of emigration since 2014.

Violence can’t be ruled out. It is less than 12 months since indigenous independence supporters invaded the billion-dollar nickel plant in South Province, burning buildings and vehicles and throwing Molotov cocktails.

More broadly, Pacific leaders will at the least be asking themselves whether France is serious in its efforts to be a responsible Indo-Pacific partner when it seems to be treating the critical final vote ending a 30-year process, so extensively boycotted by indigenous independence supporters, as showing massive support for France.

* After the publication of this article, the Australian foreign minister issued a statement.