An unconvincing referendum

Last week, previewing yesterday’s independence referendum in New Caledonia, I remarked that “No-one knows exactly how effective” the call for a boycott would be. Now we do: it was very effective indeed.

Turnout was only 43.9%, just over half of the 85.7% recorded last year. Almost all of the pro-independence voters stayed home; the “yes” vote was just 3.5%. Another 3.0% of those who turned out voted informal, up from 1.2% last time. (See official results here.)

If you assume that the extra abstentions and informals were all pro-independence, you get a narrow underlying majority for independence, 51.5%. But that assumption is unrealistic, both because there would probably have been some fall in turnout anyway due to the pandemic, and also because the boycott would have kept some anti-independence voters from the polls as well, since the result was no longer in doubt.

(To illustrate that last point: in the Loyalty Islands, a strongly pro-independence area, turnout fell from 74.7% to just 4.5%; last year, 15.7% or 2,571 people voted “no”, while yesterday it was just 803, or 85.6% of the new derisory turnout. It is not plausible to think that two-thirds of the “no” voters there had been converted to the cause of independence in the space of 14 months.)

So the pro-independence side would almost certainly have lost anyway. Moreover, the roll for the referendum is something of an artificial construct; it excludes more than 30,000 voters, most of them recent immigrants and therefore likely to be anti-independence. There is clearly no overall majority for independence.

But there is no large majority against it either. The unhappy truth is that there is nothing like a consensus on the territory’s future, and it seems no closer to one than when the Noumea Accord was signed 23 years ago. Those who now say – like Sonia Backes, president of the mostly-European Southern province – that its French status is “no longer negotiable” are engaged in wishful thinking. Everything is still negotiable, because nothing has been resolved.

This is not (yet) Algeria; both sides are still committed to talking. But nothing much will happen for the next six months, because France will be fully occupied with the coming elections. And Emmanuel Macron in particular will shy away from anything controversial, and especially from anything that might be seen as weakness.

Talks are supposed to lead to a new referendum in 18 months time – not on independence, but on a new agreed status for New Caledonia. The prospects of reaching that sort of agreement seem slim. It’s possible, however, that if Macron wins re-election he will treat the issue as a priority, and if he sets his mind to it he may come up with something.

But if the New Caledonians find themselves next year dealing with the centre-right’s Valérie Pécresse instead, it will be a quite different ball game. She will have much stronger ties with the anti-independence forces, and her voters will be much less interested in a genuine reckoning with France’s colonial record.

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