Patrick Quinn | Pacific Fellow
Last December, New Caledonia's independence referendum saw more than 96 per cent of the population vote against independence. The referendum marked the third and final referendum agreed to as part of the Nouméa Accords, which ended a violent period of civil war in 1988. The Accords themselves represented a pivotal agreement between the colonial French state and the indigenous Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front of New Caledonia (FLNKS), which allowed space for a gradual transition of political power to New Caledonia.
The overwhelming rejection of independence was heralded by loyalists as a resounding triumph. With allusions to its strategic – perhaps even more than it’s symbolic or even economic importance – French President Emmanuel Macron emphasised the importance of retaining France’s presence “in this Pacific Ocean which is an integral part of our national space”. It was not long before France announced plans to submit a new statute for New Caledonia to vote on in June 2023, citing the benefits of renewed interdependence with France as the only pragmatic choice.
Despite French assertions as to the legitimacy and legality of the vote, the result remains a pyrrhic victory at best. The vote was marred by a majority abstention, with just 45 per cent of the population casting their vote last December. In comparison, the two previous referenda saw overall turnout of 81 and 85.7 per cent respectively, with the proportion of those in favour of independence rising from 43.3 per cent in 2018 to 46.7 per cent in 2020. Comparably, 2021 saw the majority 56 per cent of the population, comprised primarily of the pro-independence Kanak population, boycott the referendum entirely after France refused pleas to postpone polling due to the devastating effects of the pandemic on local communities.
Crucially, the divisiveness of the referendum not only undermines a decades-long peace settlement but will likely prove counterintuitive to France’s strategic interests in the long-term. The decision to subvert the decolonisation process was unsurprising given France’s weakened strategic position in the region following the AUKUS announcement last September, and its perceived marginalisation in regional affairs relative to formations such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, Pacific Islands Forum, or even the Five Eyes alliance. Geopolitically, the archipelago also boasts a strong mining economy, being the fourth largest nickel producer in the world. It sits in a key strategic position in the heart of the South Pacific, and envelopes one of the larger Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) in the region. Such factors were, moreover, intensified given the simultaneous French presidential elections and the mounting pressure from right-wing parties.
At risk here is the necessary issue of sovereignty. However, what this referendum highlights is the need for a more realistic understanding of viable ways forward. Most conceptions of sovereignty imply a binary separation into internal/external elements. On the one hand, the so-called ‘internal’ dimensions of sovereignty, including the ability to enforce their own laws, elect their own legislature, and regulate the negative consequences of economic globalisation, are highly sought after by developing nations facing the disproportionate emphasis on the need to regulate external influences. At the same time, facing the unique pressures of trade, security, aid, and the need for adequate migration pathways, Pacific nations remain acutely aware of the need for close engagement and a necessary level of interdependence with larger powers.
Calls for independence and self-governance are, in this way, commonly juxtaposed with questions of what has been called ‘external’ sovereignty, associated with the ability of the state to act independently and autonomously in the face of external forces. In a region caught between unique developmental and environmental challenges, and the ever-increasing strategic significance of the region to larger powers, the prospects of independence thus betray very real concerns.
Sovereignty, however, is not synonymous with independence, nor is it some static or paradoxical concept. Somewhat counterintuitively in a region such as the Pacific, the issue of sovereignty has created an awareness of the mutually-reinforcing relation between independence and interdependence. Indeed, as the late leader of the Kanak independence movement, Jean-Marie Tjibaou, eloquently argued, the question of interdependence is intimately interwoven with independence debates in the region;
“Sovereignty is the right to choose partners; independence is the power to manage all the needs that colonisation, the present system, has created. ... Sovereignty gives us the right and the power to negotiate interdependencies. For a small country like ours, independence is choosing our interdependencies skilfully”.
Reflecting this unique political, economic, and historical environment in the region, alternative models of sovereignty have been imagined and established. In the forms of ‘free association’ and various designs of flexible sovereignty, arrangements such as those in New Zealand and the United States, offer a third way forward. While by no means perfect, these arrangements, broadly conceived, allow for the right of self-government in exchange for the right of strategic denial and the ‘external’ sovereignty more relevant to larger powers. Such arrangements allow for a revision of this distinction less as dichotomy and more as a fulcrum for realistic change.
Said again, political considerations in the Pacific must be careful not to set the bar too low. While a reactionary and undoubtedly self-conscious means to maintain a stronger presence in the region, France’s unwillingness to accommodate Kanak and pro-independence voices can only prove short-sighted. Any viable future for New Caledonia, or for France’s strategic designs, can only be met through a re-interrogation of what sovereignty and independence may more realistically mean.
The only realistic means for France to preserve its long-term strategic interests in the region is to accommodate internal demands for New Caledonia’s independence without setting this against a false binary concerning functional levels of interdependence. The Noumea Accord once provided a means to accommodate this distinction in pursuit of a ‘Common Destiny’. After scuttling the decolonisation process, France must be prepared to give a concrete time-frame for New Caledonia's independence, specifically a means of exercising sovereignty consistent with the simultaneous regional necessities of interdependence.
Patrick Quinn is the Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.