Tennyson Dearing | Pacific Fellow
There’s an art and a science to consensus building. The art is in finding a middle ground. The science is ensuring it’s firm enough to stand on. But for France, and for New Caledonia’s loyalist and independence groups—the three parties at the heart of New Caledonia’s independence movement—a firm middle ground will be hard won, with high stakes for both country and region.
New Caledonia’s decades-long struggle for sovereignty has been characterised by polarisation and violent conflict. Though since 1998, following negotiations between France and the main independence coalition, the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS), an agreement known as the Noumea Accord has presided over a fragile peace.
The road to a third referendum
The accord entitles New Caledonia to three referendums on its political status. Two have been held already, with 56.7% and 53.3% wins for pro-France voters in 2018 and 2020 respectively. After a week of ministerial conferences in Paris last month, France’s Overseas Minister, Sébastien Lecornu, announced that the third will be held on 12 December.
Put simply, whether the referendum is successful or not, it means the status quo is over. New Caledonia’s second vote might have delivered a majority for the loyalists, but support for self-determination strengthened considerably. In leaked private comments, President Macron acknowledged that this could be read as a ‘yes, maybe’ or ‘yes, soon’.
The second referendum also revealed a deepening ethnic divide, with pro-independence support concentrated in the Kanak Northern and Loyalty Islands Provinces and pro-France support in the largely European Southern Province. But unlike some European residents, the indigenous Kanaks are there to stay.
As Denise Fisher, a visiting fellow at ANU’s Centre for European Studies observes, this means that a viable future for New Caledonia demands consideration of indigenous independence views. For the time being, the Noumea Accord provides this space. But the framework’s conclusion in 2022 will inevitably leave a vacuum.
France must be prepared to sign a new agreement based on consensus between the Kanak and loyalist camps in the event of a third ‘no’ vote. It seems likely that this would involve ceding greater autonomy to New Caledonia. Yet faced with reconciling apparently irreconcilable differences, and in a marriage that can have no divorce (France has ruled out partition), negotiations will be difficult.
Independence would see New Caledonia inherit the sovereign powers of state and the many challenges attached to them. These were outlined in no uncertain terms by France, in a confidential paper presented at last month’s Paris roundtable.
The paper indicates that €1.5 billion (18% of New Caledonian GDP) in annual French funding would be withdrawn and that New Caledonia would lose the benefit of international treaties concluded by France. It also raises key questions for currency and immigration. The CFP franc would be devalued, if not lost, and New Caledonia would face an exodus of citizens. In a survey commissioned by the French government, only 54% of respondents said they were sure to stay.
Emancipation has always been premised on a New Caledonia better integrated with its neighbours and less dependent on Paris. However, responsible state building takes time—something in short supply after France set the final handover date at 30 June 2023.
A ‘yes’ vote would also complicate regional stability. France has steadily increased its military presence and deepened strategic partnerships along what it sees as an Indo-Pacific axis, stretching from Paris to New Delhi, Canberra and Noumea. As President Macron explained in a 2018 speech in Sydney, France’s goal is to ‘act as an inclusive and stabilising mediating power’.
Independence wouldn’t mean a drastic change for France’s Pacific posture. France would still live in the region and Paris has made clear that the Indo-Pacific is its priority.
But it would diminish France’s geostrategic foothold. New Caledonia is the nerve centre of France’s regional military operations and home to its Pacific fleet. It also lends Paris a privileged position in the region’s political architecture, as one of only two French overseas territories to sit at the Pacific Islands Forum.
With the long shadow of Chinese hegemony on the horizon, France’s excision from its balancing role will have consequences for Melanesian and Pacific stability.
In the event of a ‘yes’ vote, a lot would depend on the nature of the split. The FLNKS has advocated for ‘independence with partnership’ and Paris hasn’t excluded an ‘association agreement’. This leaves the door open for cooperation on issues of defence, foreign affairs, currency, and the judiciary, consistent with local expectations. It also sets the tone for the future of French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna.
It’s clear that whatever the outcome in December, the status quo is over. New Caledonia’s future will be defined by increased autonomy, if not independence, and if a ‘common destiny’ for all Caledonians is still the question, then consensus must be the answer.
Tennyson Dearing is the Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs