Third time lucky for New Caledonia?

It passed almost without a mention in the Australian media, but one of the big stories in our part of the world last week was the announcement that New Caledonia would go to the polls later this year, on 12 December, for a third and final referendum on the question of independence from France.

Readers may remember that the first referendum, in November 2018, recorded a “yes” vote for independence of 43.3%, and that in the second, in October 2020, that increased to 46.7%. The Noumea Accord of 1998 provides for a third referendum if at least a third of the members of the territorial congress request it: there was never any doubt that they would, and in April they did.

There followed a meeting between the French government and both pro- and anti-independence New Caledonians to try to agree on a date. The Noumea Accord says that the vote should be “in the second year following” the first one. Supporters of independence wanted it late in that window, towards the end of next year, because demographic change is on their side; their opponents, for the same reason, wanted it as early as possible, before the end of this year.

The French government had its own interest – it doesn’t want the referendum hanging over the French presidential election to be held next April, or the legislative election to follow shortly afterwards. So, to the annoyance of the pro-independence party, the FLNKS, it went for an early date, just 14 months after the last one; within the letter of the Noumea Accord, but arguably contrary to its spirit.

If New Caledonia votes for independence, there will then be a two year transitional period in which a new constitution will be drafted and voted on. If the “no” side wins again, there will be further consultation to devise “a new path for the institutions of New Caledonia,” which in due course will also be put to another referendum.

Before the last referendum I said that “it’s hard to see any eventual outcome other than independence,” and nothing that’s happened since then really calls that into question. A win for the anti-independence forces could only be a narrow one, and there’s no realistic way that that would settle the issue. What’s really needed, unlikely as it seems for the present, is for the two sides in New Caledonia to work together to create a new nation that respects both of their traditions.

We’re used to making fun of the way that Britain’s imperial memories constantly tug on British politics, but it happens in France as well: the same basic cause, with a host of differences in detail. The contrast is especially interesting at present because Britain has a leader whose instincts are unashamedly imperial, while France’s Emmanuel Macron has more natural sympathy for decolonisation.

A report by Paul Melly a few days ago at the BBC gives a particularly good presentation of the issues Macron faces in coming to terms with France’s colonial legacy:

Mr Macron’s style certainly contrasts with the clubby networking that used to characterise so much of the relationships between French presidents and African political élites …

This tended to reinforce incumbent power rather than responding to wider demands for reform or social and economic development.

Mr Macron has faced African issues head-on, and with a much greater degree of openness. He is not afraid to publicly make the case for change.

Unfortunately for the president, there is no likely outcome that will make New Caledonia a political success for him. If it votes for independence, that will reinforce the accusations of French decline that his opponents on the right keep making. But if it votes narrowly to stay French that will increase the risk of violence and make it clear that even a generation after the troubles of the 1980s the problem has not been solved.

With a December poll, however, there is at least some chance that French voters will have forgotten about the question by the time they come to pass judgement on Macron in April.

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