Blog: The independence referendum in New Caledonia: Birth of a new state?

By Wouter Veenendaal

Seven years after South Sudan’s attainment of independence, the world may this week once again witness the birth of a new sovereign state. Next Sunday (4 November), citizens of the South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia will head to the polls to vote in an independence referendum. At present, New Caledonia is ruled as a French special collectivity (collectivité sui generis), meaning that France – which has controlled the territory since 1853 – exercises ultimate sovereignty over the islands. If a majority of voters support independence, France has pledged to accept the outcome and allow New Caledonia to become an independent state.

The referendum comes after decades of conflict between pro- and anti-independence groups on the islands. New Caledonia holds about 10% of the world’s nickel reserves, and since the 1960s, nickel mining has attracted waves of migrants, particularly from metropolitan France and the surrounding Pacific islands. As a result of these demographic changes, the original Melanesian population of New Caledonia – the Kanaks – have gradually become a minority in their own land, and nowadays constitute approximately 40% of the archipelago’s inhabitants. Since the early 1980s, Kanak activists united in the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) have agitated for independence from France, and have accused the French government of stimulating migration policies aimed at further reducing the proportion of Kanaks in New Caledonia.

In 1986, much against the wishes of France but supported by neighbouring Pacific states such as Vanuatu, the United Nations placed New Caledonia on its list of non-self-governing territories which, according to Chapter XI of the UN Charter, are subject to a decolonization process. In New Caledonia, the struggle between the FLNKS and the French government culminated in the 1988 Ouvéa cave hostage, during which Kanak separatists killed 6 French gendarmes and took another 27 hostage. A subsequent French intervention resulted in the killing of 18 Kanak activists and 2 more gendarmes. Later that year, negotiations between the FLNKS and the French government resulted in the Matignon Agreements, which gave amnesty to those involved in the hostage crisis, and promised a vote on New Caledonian self-determination within 10 years. The 1998 Nouméa Accord, which was endorsed by over 70% of New Caledonian voters, gave additional autonomy to New Caledonia and promised a referendum on full independence within 20 years.

In contrast to the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, France has traditionally strongly objected to the attainment of independence by any its overseas territories. Due to New Caledonia’s vast nickel reserves, it has a particularly strong interest in retaining sovereignty over this territory. Furthermore, independence is strongly opposed by the European French inhabitants of New Caledonia, who form about 27% of the collectivity’s population and are known for their conservative and nationalistic attitudes. While the French government does not officially endorse any position in the referendum, a high-profile visit by President Macron in May was broadly seen as giving a boost to the anti-independence campaign. Opponents of independence have argued that New Caledonia would not be viable as a sovereign state, and that independence would primarily advance China’s increasingly dominant position in the South Pacific. With a population of about 280,000, a territory covering 18,500 square kilometres, and extensive natural resources, an independent New Caledonia would, however, be among the largest and arguably most viable states in Oceania.

As a result of the shifting demographics, voter eligibility for this referendum has become a hotly contested issue. Demands from pro-independence groups to limit the suffrage rights of French-born citizens have led to a reduced electorate, in which non-Kanak residents can only vote if they have continuously lived in New Caledonia since 1994. While this has resulted in a Kanak majority among eligible voters, the few opinion polls that have been held so far indicate a clear victory for the anti-independence camp. But even in the event of a rejection of independence in this referendum, hopes for New Caledonian independence may remain alive: the Nouméa Accord stipulates that two further referendums on independence may be held in 2020 and 2023.

Photo: Agence France-Presse.

(Wouter Veenendaal is a researcher at KITLV and an assistant professor at the Institute of Political Science of Leiden University. He is working part-time at KITLV to conduct his research project ‘When things get personal: Explaining political stability in small states’, financed by an NWO Veni grant. His research addresses the question why small states have more stable political systems than large ones, despite the weakness of political structures and strongly personalized politics.)

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