Self-determination in the Pacific

The other day we looked briefly at Monday’s provincial election in Quebec, noting that the party system there still reflects attitudes towards independence rather than a more conventional spectrum. So it’s worth mentioning that another French-speaking territory is currently debating its independence: New Caledonia, just two hours flight from Australia, votes in a referendum on independence in a month’s time, on 4 November.

New Caledonia was colonised by France in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Europeans established a permanent presence, but – unlike, say, the British in Australia – never succeeded in reducing the native population to a small minority. The two groups now have a rough demographic parity, with the balance held by immigrants from other parts of Asia or Oceania and those of mixed origins.

There’s really nowhere that European colonialism had a good record; the French in New Caledonia were probably no worse than the average, but that’s still pretty bad. The indigenous people, known as Kanaks, never accepted the loss of their land, and by the 1970s there was a fully-fledged independence movement in being.

The independence campaign erupted into violence in the 1980s. That seems to have been the necessary shock to bring the two sides to compromise, and in 1988 the new French Socialist government decided to try negotiation rather than repression. The result was the Matignon agreement, confirmed and extended ten years later in the Noumea accord of 1998.

Since then, the territory has been mostly at peace, with gradually increased autonomy and generous French subsidies, particularly for the Kanak areas. The Noumea accord promised a vote on independence within 20 years, and this year that time is up.

But during that time, New Caledonian politics has changed considerably. Instead of a sharp division between pro-independence Kanaks and anti-independence colonialists, a centre force emerged (first Future Together, now Caledonia Together), opposed to independence but committed to multi-ethnic co-operation.

The centre quickly came to dominate territorial politics because it held the balance of power between the two poles. In the last territorial election, in 2014, Caledonia Together had 26.1% of the vote; other anti-independence parties had 32.5% between them, and the various pro-independence parties totalled 41.4%.

So you’d expect that a straight vote on independence – “Do you want New Caledonia to achieve full sovereignty and become independent?” – would go down about 60-40. In fact, opinion polls show it doing rather worse than that; invariably more than two to one, sometimes more like three to one.

It looks as if Kanak grievances were more about domination by a local right-wing colonialist elite than about the somewhat theoretical issue of rule by Paris. With meaningful local autonomy assured, the prospect of losing France’s financial support becomes more worrying.

(And although New Caledonia is pretty big by South Pacific standards, it doesn’t amount to much per head of French taxpayer: national prestige and a friendly place to holiday in the tropics will probably keep the French interested.)

Sentiment could shift, of course, in the coming month, but it’s hard to imagine that the pro-independence side can make up that sort of deficit.


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