Third time has little charm: New Caledonia's referendum on independence

By Dr Tess Newton Cain
Project Lead, Pacific Hub, Griffith Asia Institute

As Tropical Cyclone Ruby fades into memory for New Caledonia, the results of the referendum on independence that was held on December 12th are still being digested.

The referendum was the last of three that were envisaged under the Noumea Accord, which came into effect in 1998. This in turn was enacted to bring about peace and stability further to “Les √Čvenements” – a period of instability and violence that stemmed from friction and conflict between the French state and the Kanaky people seeking self-determination and sovereignty.

In 2018, the first referendum was held. The vote was in favour of remaining a part of France by a margin of 57% to 43%. Last year the second referendum saw the margin narrow with 53% voting “Non” to independence and 47% voting “Oui”.

The Noumea Accord allows for the third vote to be held at any time up to October 2022. Despite calls from the pro-independence groups to delay the referendum till the second half of next year, the French government insisted that it should be held on December 12th.

The final figures may appear definitive, with 96.49% of those who voted having opted to remain as a part of France, leaving only 3.51% who wanted independence. However, the more significant figure is that of participation.

On Sunday, only 43.87% of the eligible voting population took part in the poll. Not only is this a low turnout in and of itself, but it also contrasts markedly with the participation rates in the previous two referendums that were held in 2018 (81%) and 2020 (85.69%).

Voting in New Caledonia is not compulsory, and so the non-participation by the predominantly Kanaky pro-independent voters does not invalidate the result in a strictly legal sense. However, as a preliminary statement from the ministerial observer mission of the Pacific Islands Forum noted:

A significant proportion of registered voters, mainly Kanak and pro-independence supporters chose to refrain from voting in support of their non-participation stance made known before the referendum, which should be taken into the contextual consideration and analysis of the result. The spirit in which the referendum was conducted weighs heavily on the Noumea Accord and New Caledonia’s self-determination process. Civic participation is an integral component of any democracy and critical to the interpretation and implications of Sunday’s poll.

Moreover, as Denise Fisher has pointed out, the insistence of the French administration to hold the referendum on December 12th undermines the spirit of the Noumea Accord, which includes a commitment on the part of France to recognise the indigenous identity and custom of the Kanaky peoples. It also marks a dramatic shift in practice by France, which stands in stark contrast to the largely facilitative role that had been adopted during the previous two referendums.

There is a lot of uncertainty about what happens next. It is certainly open to the pro-independence parties to lodge an appeal against the conduct and result of the referendum. There is also the possibility that an appeal will be made to the United Nations, given that New Caledonia is one of 17 entities that remain the list of “non-self-governing territories” overseen by the “Special Committee on the Situation with regard to the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and People” (sometimes referred to as the C-24 committee).

It is also open to the C-24 Committee to de-list New Caledonia now that the process envisaged by the Noumea Accords has been completed and the “Non” vote has prevailed.

The French government’s intention is to meet with all relevant parties to begin drawing up a new legislative framework for the future of New Caledonia. This would then be subject to a referendum in the middle of 2023. However, the leadership of pro-independence parties have already stated clearly that they have no intention of taking part in any discussions until after the French Presidential elections next year.

We have yet to hear anything from the United Nations further to the referendum. They did not have electoral observers in New Caledonia for the vote or the lead up to it, but have been providing technical assistance to electoral authorities. The silence from New York is palpable and – unsurprisingly – a source of concern and query among Pacific commentators.

Whilst concerns that the referendum might be a flashpoint for unrest and violence appear to have been unfounded, there is no question that the political ructions have been significant, and they are likely to be long-lasting.

Of particular significance is how this is handled by the Pacific Islands Forum. New Caledonia became a full member of the Forum in 2016. This places it within a grouping whose very existence was forged, in part, on the centrality of independence and self-determination for Pacific peoples.

There are many within the region, including the newly formed Pacific Elders' Voice, who will want to see the wishes and the sensitivities of the Kanaky people given more accommodation than appears to have been the case thus far. In addition, we can expect Vanuatu and other members of the Melanesian Spearhead Group to push the Pacific Islands Forum to take a robust position on this issue.

The ever-shifting geopolitical landscape adds a further wrinkle. The abrupt cancellation of the naval submarine contract by Australia may have contributed to what has appeared to be a ‘crash through or crash’ approach on the part of France. This, coupled with a perceived arrogance on the part of Sebastien Lecornu, the French Foreign Minister, runs the risk of setting back France’s reputation in the region by a good 30 years.

Whilst there is no doubt that the United States and Australia welcome France as a Pacific power, they will likely be somewhat unnerved by the way things have been handled recently.

Banner image: New Caledonia's two official flags hang on the same pole - the native Kanak flag and the French tricolour. Source: George Garrigues via Wikimedia Commons

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