Quebecers who are tired of hearing about a referendum should avoid New Caledonia. On Sunday, the 180,000 voters on the electoral roll will go to the polls for the second time in two years to vote on the independence of this Coral Sea archipelago off Australia. The ballot may be held in complete isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic (even French journalists were unable to attend), it could hold some surprises.
In the absence of polls, observers are reduced to speculation. “The result could be tighter than expected,” says historian Frédéric Angleviel of the University of New Caledonia. In 2018, there was 20% abstention. If a few more voters show up to the polls, as one might expect, that could hold some surprises. “
This is what happened in 2018, when the no-win was announced by almost 70% and the “loyalists” won only 56.7% of the vote. The defeat of the yes camp had suddenly turned into a psychological victory, and the separatists marched peacefully through the streets. On Sunday, the question will be the same as in 2018: “Do you want New Caledonia to achieve full sovereignty and become independent?” “
An original approach
As strange as it may seem to Quebeckers who lived through the referendums of 1980 and 1995, Paris adopted an astonishing attitude of neutrality throughout the referendum campaign. At most the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) criticized the state for having authorized the use of the tricolor flag and the Marseillaise by the camp of no.
It must be said that this referendum is the fruit of a completely original approach launched by the former socialist Prime Minister Michel Rocard. The Matignon (1988) accords supplemented by those of Nouméa (1998) provided for the holding of three successive referendums on independence. First scheduled for 2008, then postponed for ten years, the first was therefore held in 2018. In the event of a victory for no Sunday, a third is already scheduled for 2022. Of the 245,000 inhabitants of the archipelago, only 180,000 have the right to vote. As the electorate has been frozen since 2007, to vote, it is necessary to be able to prove a permanent residence since at least 1998. This has the effect of allowing the native Kanaks to represent 45% of the electorate while they barely represent the third of the population.
“This unique process was the result of a compromise,” says Frédéric Angleviel. So-called loyalists wanted 20 years of peace. The separatists demanded three referendums in order to allow them a certain learning of responsibilities. “
Since 2018, the political divide has hardly changed. The Kanaks are 90% in favor of independence. Their representatives denounce a “counter economy” essentially based on the export of natural resources. New Caledonia holds around 25% of the world’s known nickel reserves.
According to the supporters of the yes, the Noumea Accords opened a process of “decolonization” by allowing the decentralization of many powers in the direction of Congress and the assemblies of the three provinces. New Caledonia even participates in several international organizations in the region.
An irreversible process?
“We are at the end of an irreversible, irrepressible process which carries the need for independence”, told the newspaper Humanity Paul Néaoutyine, president of the northern province, with a Kanak majority. The separatists say they have good hopes of rallying more non-Kanaks to their project. In particular those called the Caldoches, often descendants of convicts deported in the XIXe century.
In the event of a yes victory, Paris pledged to respect the democratic choice and to undertake a transition process that could take several years. If the separatists want “independence in partnership” with France, the opponents point out for their part the great economic dependence of the islands. About 9,000 Caledonians are civil servants and the population enjoys the same social assistance as in the metropolis. Opponents of independence point to neighboring Vanuatu, which became independent in 1980 and where China has invested heavily. It is not without reason that Australia recently bought French submarines.
The ideal would be to sit down at the negotiating table to find a new deal. Even if it means calling a new referendum in 5 or 10 years.
Since the turn of the century, New Caledonia has enjoyed relative prosperity as a result of nickel prices and investment projects, including that of the Canadian mining company Falconbridge. In addition to nickel, the archipelago allows France to enjoy an immense exclusive maritime zone as well as seabed teeming with rare earths. Nouméa also hosts the largest French military contingent in the Pacific.
“For 20 years, the two political blocs have not changed much,” says Frédéric Angleviel. No one has succeeded in convincing the other. We don’t really see any compromise on the horizon. “If Sunday the no wins in the same proportions as in 2018, it is not excluded that the parties postpone the referendum scheduled for 2022.” The ideal would be to sit down at the negotiating table in order to find a new agreement, says Frédéric Angleviel. Even if it means calling a new referendum in 5 or 10 years. “