Shifting sands in New Caledonia

If you rely on Facebook you might not be seeing any news anyway, but at the best of times we get very little from our near neighbor, the French territory of New Caledonia. Its current political crisis, however, is well worth a look.

Readers will probably remember that New Caledonia has held two referenda in the last three years on the question of independence. In 2018 the “no” vote was 56.7%; last year it was down to 53.3%. A third and supposedly final referendum is to be held late next year, and the pro-independence forces have a fighting chance of winning it.

This relatively even division between pro- and anti-independence sentiment reproduces itself in New Caledonia’s elections. The last territorial election, in 2019 (see my report here), produced a territorial congress with a narrow anti-independence majority, 28 seats to 26. Or so it seemed at the time.

The congress then elects an executive in which the different groups share power proportionately, not unlike the government of Northern Ireland. It means that either side can bring down the government by resigning its positions. And that’s just what happened at the beginning of this month, when the pro-independence ministers walked out, saying that “the institutional process has broken down.”

This followed months of tension and sometimes violent protests over the future of the Goro nickel plant, with the pro-independence parties keen to ensure local control of one of the territory’s key economic resources. In addition to its importance in its own right, the plant is symbolic of the way that France, now preoccupied with its Covid troubles, seems to be ignoring New Caledonia and failing to prepare for a possible future of independence.

So this week the congress met to elect a new government. The previous anti-independence majority had depended on the three seats held by Oceanic Awakening, a party representing the interests of the Wallis & Futuna Islander community. This time it decided to switch sides, and did a deal with UC-FLNKS, one of the two main pro-independence groups.

The idea was that, with its support, UC-FLNKS would win four of the eleven ministries, one of which it would give to Oceanic Awakening; UNI-FLNKS, the other main pro-independence group, would win two, leaving just five for the opponents of independence – who in the past have always held the majority.

It didn’t quite work out that way. The sole member from the pro-independence Labor Party and a dissident from the anti-independence side both voted for UNI-FLNKS, giving the two pro-independence groups three seats each. So the pro-independence forces won a majority on the executive, but with no spot to spare for Oceanic Awakening. They were understandably not impressed.

Since the two halves of the FLNKS had equal numbers, they were unable to agree at the first attempt on the choice of a new president of the government. Another attempt is to be made on Monday; presumably the two (UNI-FLNKS is the more radical group while UC-FLNKS is more moderate) will reach some compromise before then. Either way, the territory will have a pro-independence government for the first time in its history.

The executive is supposed to work by consensus, so the precise balance of power on it isn’t quite as important as it might seem, but it’s still a major symbolic milestone. It will add greatly to the sense that independence is a real prospect, not the pie in the sky that it appeared just a few years ago. And it will add to the pressure on the European community to take partial ownership of the independence process rather than fighting in the trenches to oppose it.

Whether they’re willing to do that, however, is another question. While the rise in support for independence is genuine, there’s an element of artificiality to the new pro-independence majority. If you look at the actual voting figures from the 2019 election (note that the official results don’t provide a grand total), the anti-independence forces had 48.6% of the vote between them; their pro-independence opponents, even counting Oceanic Awakening, had only 47.9%. (Two small parties that are neutral on the independence question shared the remainder.)

The reason that a minority of the vote translates into a narrow majority in the congress is that the latter is malapportioned; the Kanak areas are over-represented in proportion to their numbers of voters. And they’re more seriously over-represented in proportion to their share of the total population, because recent immigrants (who tend to be anti-independence) are excluded from the electoral roll.

That’s not to say that some tilting of the system in favor of the Kanaks isn’t justified: after all, it was their country, which the French stole. But it explains why the Europeans might feel that their underlying strength is greater than either last October’s vote or this week’s manoeuvring might suggest. And if that prompts a last-ditch resistance to independence, there could be big problems ahead for New Caledonia.

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