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New Caledonia might be about to break from France. Here's why the world is watching

An independence supporter with a flag of the Socialist Kanak National Liberation Front (FLNKS) on October 1, 2020.
Theo Rouby
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AFP via Getty Images
An independence supporter with a flag of the Socialist Kanak National Liberation Front (FLNKS) on October 1, 2020.

Many voters in the French territory of New Caledonia go to the polls this Sunday to vote on a referendum on independence — again.

They have voted twice before on the issue, but analysts say changing demographics and politics could push the small cluster of South Pacific islands into independence in this third and final vote.

Such a move could have wider implications, particularly for France and its status as a world power in the resource-rich and strategic Pacific.

And it's a moment not lost on China and the United States as well.

The long path to self-determination

The vote comes after more than a century of often violent unrest between New Caledonia's mostly-French settlers and the indigenous Kanak population.

Among other things, the Kanak want more control over the economy, including the territory's vast nickel reserves — the fourth largest in the world. Nickel is becoming increasingly valuable worldwide because it's a key component in lithium batteries.

An aerial view in 2015 in New Caledonia shows the Koniambo Nickel SAS metallurgical plant.
Theo Rouby / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
An aerial view in 2015 in New Caledonia shows the Koniambo Nickel SAS metallurgical plant.

France wanted to hold the referendum this year for many reasons, including to not have it overlap with French national elections in 2022.

But while the third vote is scheduled for this Sunday, there is a wrinkle: The pro-independence faction does not want it to go ahead now and has called for "non-participation" — effectively a boycott.

Charles Wea is with the pro-independence coalition known as FLNKS (the French acronym for the Kanak and Socialist National Liberal Front), which controls the New Caledonian government for the first time in more than two decades.

He says pandemic lockdowns have made it difficult to campaign. Meanwhile, the virus has killed nearly 300 people across the Melaneasian archipelago — most of them Kanak, he says, who make up about 41% of the territory's nearly 289,000 people.

"We told the French government to postpone the referendum until next year so the Kanak people can do their mourning," Wea said.

Kanak mourning rites can take up to a year, and although Wea has fought in the self-determination struggle his entire life, he supports holding off on the referendum.

Boards with campaign posters by different political groups favoring or opposing New Caledonia's independence from France are seen during the referendum in Noumea on November 4, 2018.
Theo Rouby / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Boards with campaign posters by different political groups favoring or opposing New Caledonia's independence from France are seen during the referendum in Noumea on November 4, 2018.

Ziad Gebran, a spokesman for the French Ministry of the Overseas, says that while the pro-independent faction has a right not to participate in the third referendum, Paris's position "is that we need to organize it very quickly to open a new phase of the Caledonia [sic] history."

"We need to have other political discussions about the future of the territory," he said.

But according to the 1998 Noumea Accord — the agreement named for New Caledonia's capital in which France promised it would grant increasing political power to the territory and the Kanaks over the next two decades, and guaranteed the three votes on independence — the final referendum can be held as late as October 2022.

The role of demographics and politics

There is reason to believe that a later vote would benefit those who want independence.

Alexandre Dayant, a researcher with the Sydney-based Lowy Institute says that is because in order to cast a ballot in the referendum, a voter needs either to have immigrated to the territory before 1988 or have been born there at any time and be over the age of 18.

People wave French national flags during the last meeting of the loyalists for the "NO" to the self-determination referendum of New Caledonia, in Noumea on October 1, 2020.
Theo Rouby / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
People wave French national flags during the last meeting of the loyalists for the "NO" to the self-determination referendum of New Caledonia, in Noumea on October 1, 2020.

"So, basically the longer Kanak people wait, the demographics play such a role that every year you have new Kanak people in age of voting," Dayant told NPR.

Meanwhile, the number of voters most likely to vote no to independence remains fixed.

Dayant also says the last two referendums show clear momentum for independence. In the 2018 referendum, 43.6% of voters said yes to leaving France. About 91% of those were Kanak.

By the second referendum in 2020, that number had crept up to nearly 47% of voters in favor of independence.

If an independence majority fails in the third and final referendum, Dayant says things won't really change between France and New Caledonia and the Noumea Accord will conclude.

Reverberations across the Pacific

If the pro-independence faction does not participate in this weekend's vote and the status quo is maintained, that could lead to renewed unrest in the territory and a destabilization of the region as a whole, argues Denise Fisher, a former Australian diplomat once based in the territory and now a visiting fellow at the Australian National University Center for European Studies.

Voting forms at a polling station in Noumea on October 4, 2020.
Theo Rouby / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Voting forms at a polling station in Noumea on October 4, 2020.

"The lessons of history appear to have been forgotten," she told NPR.

Meanwhile, an independent New Caledonia could also have massive consequences for France as a major power in the Pacific, Fisher said.

"Their Indo-Pacific vision is based on their sovereignty and their various possessions in the two oceans. Therefore, its performance in New Caledonia and the immediate Pacific reaction to it is extremely important for its status and acceptance as an Indo-Pacific partner," she said.

Ahead of the first referendum in 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron told New Caledonians that France would not be the same without them, and warned of a "new hegemony" in the region — a reference to China, which has worked hard to increase its presence in the region.

French President Emmanuel Macron meets residents of the Pierre Lenquette residential area on May 4, 2018.
Ludovic Marin / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
French President Emmanuel Macron meets residents of the Pierre Lenquette residential area on May 4, 2018.

While the latest Asia Power Index from the Lowy Institute reveals that the U.S. is the top spender in the Pacific, China is a close second, and experts say there are fears that should New Caledonia achieve independence, they could go the way of Pacific partners Kiribati and the Solomon Islands in aligning with China.

French loyalists in New Caledonia are skeptical that the territory can survive militarily or economically without Paris, which provides some $1.5 billion to the territory each year.

"There are too many risks, too many uncertainties and too many issues that have not been dealt with at all," says David Guyenne, president of the New Caledonia Chamber of Commerce.

While the chamber does not take a stance on the independence referendum, Guyenne, the grandchild of Vietnamese immigrants who came to the territory in the 1930s, said the "economic world as a whole wants to stay in the French Republic."

Still, Charles Wea said once his homeland achieved independence, they would work with whomever they wanted.

"France, with Australia, with China — any country that wants to help us," he said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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