New Caledonia tries again

Two years ago, the French territory of New Caledonia voted with a clear majority (56.7%) against independence. On Sunday it will vote again on the same question, and in all likelihood there will be yet another referendum in two years time.

But this isn’t a best-of-three exercise. The pro-independence forces only have to win once. And although the odds are against them this year, it’s possible that they will get close enough to make victory in 2022 more likely than not.

You can read about the background in my report on the leadup to the 2018 vote. Basically New Caledonia is distinctive among European colonial possessions in having a rough demographic parity between colonists and indigenous people. Neither the Europeans, who oppose independence, nor the indigenous New Caledonians, or Kanaks, who support it, have a majority; the balance between them is held by immigrants from elsewhere, who tend to be anti-independence.

Perhaps the closest parallel, and a disturbing one at that, is Algeria. The French colonists in Algeria only amounted to about one-eighth of its population, but they were well established there and dominated commercial and professional life. That helped to make the Algerian war of independence an especially nasty affair, and when the French finally threw in the towel, the vast majority of the colonists, or pieds-noirs (“black feet”), fled to France rather than remain under native rule.

No-one wants that to happen in New Caledonia. But it’s hard to see any eventual outcome other than independence. Time is clearly on the side of the Kanaks; the pro-independence vote last time was higher than expected, and if turnout in the Kanak areas matched that in urban Noumea it would be closer still. Provincial elections last year also showed a swing towards pro-indepenence groups.

So if the anti-independence vote on Sunday falls below 55% it seems possible that it will provoke something of a rethink among the European community. Accepting independence as inevitable and working to help make it a success would probably be better for everyone than simply clinging to the French connection for as long as possible.

But this is notoriously the sort of issue in which logic often takes second place to emotion. For most people, the vote for or against independence is not a detached judgement about which option would be best for the territory; it’s a matter of deep emotional identification. Once again, Simon Jenkins’s line on Scotland comes to mind: “No nation seeks independence to get rich. It seeks independence to get free.”

There’s one other important thing to note, which is that the numbers voting in the referendum do not fully reflect the population as a whole. The Noumea Accord, the agreement that paved the way for the vote on independence, provided that it would be limited to those with a genuine stake in the territory; as a result, about one-sixth of those who would normally be on the electoral roll (basically immigrants of less than 25 years standing) are not eligible to vote.

As usual, there’s not much media coverage of New Caledonia, but Nic Maclellan’s report from a few weeks ago is particularly good, and there are stories this week on the ABC and at the Conversation. With only about 150,000 votes to count, results should be available first thing Monday morning.

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