Referendum preview: New Caledonia

Our often-forgotten near neighbor, New Caledonia, goes to the polls on Sunday to vote on whether or not to become an independent nation. For some of the background, you can read my explanation from a month ago; the Conversation today also has a good wrap-up.

All the evidence is that the “no” vote will prevail by a substantial margin, although some of the recent stories on the topic – for example, Nic Maclellan’s very evocative reporting from the scene – manages to avoid mentioning that fact.

That won’t mean an end to the independence debate. The Noumea accord of 1998, under which the current referendum is being held, provides that if the vote goes against independence, a third of the members of the territorial legislature can request another referendum two years later, and, if need be, another two years after that.

So a lot will depend on how close the result on Sunday is. The indigenous people, or Kanaks, have both lower turnout and higher population growth; if independence is narrowly defeated this time, they may reasonably hope that a fresh campaign could bring victory in two or four years time.

On the other hand, if the “no” vote is above 60%, as opinion polls have indicated (although polling has been very sporadic), then it’s hard to see much point in trying again in the immediate future.

Since the violence of the 1980s, which brought the contending parties to their senses, politics in New Caledonia has mostly been marked by compromise. Unfortunately, independence is the one thing that can’t really be compromised on: a country is either independent or it’s not. There is no middle way.

The unstated hope behind the Noumea accord was that one of two things would happen. Either the Kanaks would be appeased by greater autonomy and economic support and would give up their aspiration for independence, or the two communities together would work out a model for independence that would reconcile the Europeans to the idea of breaking with France.

Neither of them has. On Sunday, the large majority of Kanaks will vote for independence, and an even larger majority of Europeans will vote against it.

Of course, that could mean that the period just hasn’t been long enough. Perhaps another two decades will produce consensus. But there’s no particular evidence for it.

Part of the problem is that there’s a shortage of precedents for this. Lots of colonies have won their independence, but nearly all of them had either an overwhelming indigenous majority, or an independence movement led by colonists rather than indigenous people. New Caledonia has neither.

Both the European residents and the immigrants from other parts of the Asia-Pacific evidently feel that an independent New Caledonia would be a less hospitable place for them. Unless the independence movement can change that perception, it looks as if the French connection will stay for the foreseeable future.



4 thoughts on “Referendum preview: New Caledonia

  1. I see that New Caledonia’s GDP per capita is a healthy US$39,000 which is higher than NZ and tenfold higher than almost all other Pacific Island nations. The direct subvention from France amounts to about $7000 per capita which is by itself higher than the GDP per capita of most Pacific island nations! It seems nickel accounts for only 5 to 8% of this, so one might assume that being part of France does result in these quite high living standards.
    No doubt the wealth is horribly unequally distributed with the Kanaks at the bottom. But would they be better off if independent?
    Of course money is not everything, but OTOH it is an awful lot of the important things like health and education. Then there is also security which in this world in flux, and China expanding its might across the Pacific, would you choose to be part of a major power like France (one that has a permanent seat on the UN security council; and that is a major naval power) or be at the mercy of an authoritarian state?
    On top of those things, New Caledonians retain the right to live in France, no different to being born French.

    Hard to see not voting to Remain.
    The major problem is the inequality. NC seems wealthy enough to do something about it but the kind of colonial Euros (and even others, Algerians etc) that set up in these far-flung places tend to the selfish end of the spectrum. In other words, they will vote No against independence but no solution is obvious to the issue driving the unrest.


  2. So, 56% for the No vote is not exactly overwhelming, and doesn’t suggest any relief from the tensions.
    However we (in the Anglosphere) could note how there is provision for two more votes in coming years if the Caledonians choose to want them. That’s how a mature system tries to cope with such stresses which compares with the Brexit debacle.


    1. Thanks Michael. I agree that there are a lot of advantages for New Caledonia in staying with France, and I think the French govt realises the need to address inequality there and improve things for the Kanaks. The problem is that so many of the colonists still have a colonial mentality and aren’t really prepared for equality with the Kanaks; conversely, Kanak resentment seems to be mostly against the European elite rather than the distant rulers in Paris. I hope they can manage to work things out somehow; at the moment I’m not all that confident.


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