As expected, New Caledonia voted yesterday to remain French territory. But the pro-independence forces did a good deal better than anticipated, with a “yes” vote of 43.6%. Polling had generally put the “no” vote above 60%.
Turnout was very high at 80.6%, although in the Loyalty Islands, where some supporters of independence had promoted a boycott, it was only 58.9%. If the islands had voted at the same rate as the rest of the territory, support for independence would have been close to 45%.
That means that the story is far from over. As explained in my preview, the “no” vote gives the supporters of independence the opportunity to requisition another vote in two years time, and again (if need be) two years after that.
Having got reasonably close this time, and with demographics running in their favor, one would not necessarily bet against the pro-independence forces being able to secure a majority by 2022 – particularly if a segment of the European population starts to see independence as inevitable and decides they want to be on the winning side.
But for now New Caledonia is a sharply divided society, as can be seen from looking at the detailed results of the referendum. You’ll only need minimal French to understand them, but to appreciate their significance it helps to know something about New Caledonian geography.
The mainland of the territory is divided into two provinces, North (Nord) and South (Sud); the Loyalty Islands form a (much smaller) third province (Province des Iles). Well over half the population lives in the Noumea metropolitan area, in the south.
The European colonists mostly settled the west coast, where the climate and terrain were more suitable for farming. The indigenous people, or Kanaks, predominate on the east coast.
So greater Noumea, being largely European, voted 77.7% against independence. The remainder of the west coast, with its mixed population, split evenly, with 50.1% “no”. But the east coast, where there are few Europeans, voted 80.3% in favor of independence, and the Loyalty Islands even more so, with 82.2%.*
That sort of division doesn’t bode well for the future. Either one or other community is going to be bitterly disappointed in its aspirations, or one is going to have to be somehow brought on side with the project of the other.
It’s easy to see how this could end very badly. As the events of the 1980s showed, New Caledonia is capable of descending into violence, and if the two communities are unable to find common ground then the territory could conceivably become a sort of miniature Algeria.
Perhaps now, when the figures show the anti-independence forces still in the majority but with the momentum on the side of their opponents, it’s time for the Europeans and other non-Kanaks to think about how they can help build an independent New Caledonia in which both communities can feel at home.
PS: I’ve now read a very good report on the result by Denise Fisher at the Conversation. She’s rather more optimistic than I am about the future; I hope she’s right.
* Note that the official results reflect where people are enrolled, not necessarily where they actually live. Many Kanaks live and work in greater Noumea, but their official residences are still in their tribal home areas, and many of them would have had to return there to vote, since absentee voting is limited – which would have contributed to the lower turnout for the Loyalty Islands.