A new nation on the way?

As expected, New Caledonia on Sunday again voted against independence from France (see my preview here). But the margin was sufficiently close to show that the momentum is clearly on the side of supporters of independence.

The previous referendum, in November 2018, produced a “no” vote of 56.7%. On Sunday that was down to 53.3%. If they gain ground at the same rate over the next two years, the “yes” campaigners will win next time, albeit very narrowly.

Does that mean independence is inevitable? Some precedents counsel caution. Quebec voted 49.4% for independence in 1995, but support dropped off from there and the issue has mostly gone away. Scotland voted 44.7% for independence in 2014, but most observers think that would have laid the issue to rest had Britain not voted two years later to leave the European Union.

New Caledonia, however, is in a very different sort of position. Its union with France never had any pretensions to being a union of equals; it was a colony, pure and simple. Support for remaining French is mostly restricted to those of European or (to a lesser extent) other non-native descent, and the demographic trend is running against them.

Moreover, the territory already enjoys substantial autonomy; there’s not a lot more that Paris can offer, short of actual independence, that might work as a compromise. Nor is there any sign that the French government is terribly agitated about the issue. The responsible minister, Sébastien Lecornu, confined himself to expressing pride in the conduct of the process and stressed the neutrality of the state as between pro- and anti-independence forces.

It’s interesting to look at the detailed results of the vote and compare them with those of two years ago (which I wrote about at the time). The narrowing of the margin comes from two factors; first is a general swing towards independence, which was remarkably uniform. Every municipality bar one increased its “yes” vote, two-thirds of them by between 1.5 and 3.5 percentage points.

The other thing was the increased turnout in the Loyalty Islands, a strongly pro-independence area. Turnout was up everywhere, from an already impressive 81.0% to 85.7% overall. But in the Loyalty Islands, where last time there had been some calls to boycott the vote, it jumped from 61.2% to 74.7%. Since the islands voted 84.3% for independence that was a significant boost to the “yes” vote (even though one of them, Maré, was the only place where it went backwards).

So the geographical distribution of independence sentiment remains basically unchanged. Greater Noumea voted 25.4 “yes” – up 3.6% on 2018, but still very much a minority. The predominantly Kanak areas were even more one-sided the other way; on the east coast of the mainland the “yes” vote was up 2.7% to 83.0%. The west coast, with its mixed population, remained evenly divided, but this time the pro-independence forces were narrowly ahead with 52.0% (up 2.1%).

Pronounced ethnically-based division on a fundamental political issue is rarely a good sign. Reconciliation between the two communities remains the most urgent task in New Caledonia, and after Sunday it seems clear – if it were not already – that that can only be on the basis of independence.

They’ve got two years before the next referendum to work something out.


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