Third time unlucky in New Caledonia

New Caledonia goes to the polls on Sunday for the third – and supposedly final – in its series of referenda on independence. But what once looked like being a very close contest is instead going to be something both more predictable and more ominous.

Regular readers may remember that the French government decided in June to hold the referendum now rather than at the generally expected date of late next year; a decision, as I put it, that was “within the letter of the [1998] Noumea Accord, but arguably contrary to its spirit.” That was a boost to the anti-independence forces, who know that time is not on their side, although it’s not clear whether or not that was part of the government’s thinking.

What really exasperated the pro-independence side, however, was when the government decided to persist with its timetable despite a major Covid-19 outbreak in the territory in September. Faced with a likely drop in turnout and what it saw as a breach of the government’s neutrality, the major pro-independence party, the FLNKS, called for a boycott of Sunday’s vote.

No-one knows exactly how effective that call will be, but even a very imperfect boycott by the indigenous people, or Kanaks, will doom the chances of a “yes” vote on independence. So New Caledonia will remain French for the foreseeable future, but just what that will mean is highly uncertain.

France wants negotiations for a new agreement on autonomy to replace the Noumea Accord; the FLNKS has no intention of giving up on its goal of independence. And nothing substantive is likely to happen in the next six months, as France is consumed by election campaigns for both president and legislature.

The shadow of the election has clearly drawn president Emmanual Macron and his government away from anything that could be seen as giving in to the FLNKS, for fear of fueling the narrative of French decline pushed by his far right opponents. Assuming he is re-elected, Macron may then feel confident enough to pursue a new comprehensive settlement, but it’s not at all clear what that might look like. And things could easily get out of control in New Caledonia in the meantime.

Nic Maclellan, whose report at Inside Story is essential reading, quotes a statement from the pro-independence forces:

the political timetable for discussion imposed by the French state in the aftermath of 12 December 2021 is not ours and only commits them. Therefore, we reserve the right to initiate discussions with the state after consultation with our respective political structures. We also wonder about the legitimacy of the current interlocutors, even though the national elections have not yet occurred.

It’s easy to sympathise (as Maclellan clearly does) with the Kanaks’ position. It was, after all, their country; the French occupied it by force in the nineteenth century, as Europeans did in so many parts of the world. “Self-determination”, used in a sense that implies that the Kanaks’ are the only voices that count, is a tempting notion.

But however their ancestors got there, the other New Caledonians – most, but by no means all, of European backgrounds – have a case as well. It’s their country too, and their existence can’t be just wished away. And the doctoring of the electoral roll that keeps the most recent immigrants from voting, while justifiable as an ad hoc measure for the independence vote, is clearly unsustainable in the longer term.

It’s worth stressing again how unusual this all is. Although European imperialism was widespread, nearly all colonies fell into one of two groups: either the colonists remained a small minority, so that independence inevitably meant indigenous rule (as in Africa, with South Africa a partial exception), or the colonists displaced the indigenous population and then themselves became leaders of the independence movement (as in Australia and most of the Americas).

But New Caledonia lacks the clarity of either group: neither Kanaks nor Europeans can command a majority, with immigrants from elsewhere in the Pacific holding the balance of power. There is no easy answer. What’s really needed is for the different communities to sit down and work out a shared vision for the territory’s future – whether or not it’s labelled “independence” – that they can all commit to.

That will require much more compromise than either side currently seems in the mood for. The danger is that instead positions will harden, the extremists on both sides will gain ground, and by the time that the French political class is ready to give the problem some attention it will already be too late.

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