Referendum Round 2: New Caledonia’s Enduring Independence Effort

Henry Heritage | Pacific Fellow

In the turbulent state of current global affairs, it is the dispute for sovereignty in a ‘post-colonial’ era that remains an enduring burden. Nevertheless, New Caledonia’s status as a French overseas collectivity will be challenged next month as it conduct’s a second independence referendum following a narrowly failed vote in 2018.


The Melanesian archipelago’s history as a non-sovereign territory is unfortunately, however not surprisingly, characterised by violent societal conflict and a firm political divide. In 1988, following an extended period of major civil unrest, the French Republic compromised with the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front of New Caledonia (FLNKS) and signed the Nouméa Accord.


The Nouméa Accord, which entitled New Caledonia to a maximum of three independence referendums, was the eventual culmination of independence clashes between French supporters and the indigenous Kanak people. These national disputes have undoubtedly endured to today, corresponding to France’s continued colonial rule. It is this divide that has upheld a political dichotomy between the Kanak population and the European loyalists.


The key challenge for either side in the 2020 referendum will be the ability to mobilise their target demographics. The 2018 referendum, an expected landslide victory for the remain vote, ended with a remarkably narrow 56.4% result. This not only instilled enormous optimism in the pro-independence supporters, but also signalled that the historical French-allegiance might be, rightfully, fatigued.


The loyalist parties have consolidated their identity under the “Les Loyalistes coalition, which will be tested by their success in activating 2018’s non-voters, who potentially had assumed a comfortable victory. Inversely, the pro-independence side has maintained a separation between the traditional FLNKS and the other separatist parties. Despite there only being a two-year gap between referendums, there is still a large potential for variability in the result and both sides recognise this as an opportunity to increase their standing.


The Transition


The challenge for independence does not necessarily finish in 2020. The Nouméa Accord states that if the second referendum were to also fail, then a third and final referendum would take place two years later if supported by at least one-third of the New Caledonian Congress. As expected, there is large speculation regarding the magnitude of the logistical and legal complications if either referendum were to result in sovereignty for the Melanesian territory.


This is because France has maintained control of central sovereign powers in its colonial rule that would demand an extensive changeover scheme if the referendum were to be successful. These powers include the control of foreign affairs, defence, currency, justice, and immigration. Although complex, the restoration of total autonomy and the partial reformation of government are completely achievable and practical procedures.


However, New Caledonia cannot instantaneously become an autonomous state and lose its dependence on French budget subsidisation and financial support. The central requirement for the successful restoration of independence is an enabled conversion process established and facilitated by the French Government. This would have to include an extended transition phase that would detail provisional shared-responsibilities and firm timeframes that would support the development of an independent New Caledonia through new sovereignty policy.


Delivering a viable transition-map is not only a legal, but also a historical responsibility for France. A progressive transition support scheme must be implemented to ensure that an independent New Caledonia can rightfully self-govern as well as mature to a functioning sovereign state. The end process can, and should, maintain a strong partnership between a New Caledonian state and France.


President Macron has recently proven that France is very capable and willing to form and support governance reformation in his recent systematic demands of Lebanon–a former French colony. Macron must ensure that the same effort is applied in the case of New Caledonian independence.


The Pacific Problem


Disputes over sovereignty are a shared issue for many Pacific territories and have continued to exemplify the restriction of autonomy in the region. Unfortunately, New Caledonia’s momentous fight for independence represents a broader phenomenon across the Pacific.

The Free West Papua Movement, which represents the province’s fight for independence from Indonesia, and the Guamanian plebiscite dispute, which seeks to contest Guam’s US territory status, both symbolise the contemporary independence challenge in the Pacific.

Although the international system champions itself on the progress of decolonisation and modern state-development, the Pacific fight for independence continues to be regularly ignored. The principal reason for this is the strategic importance of the region. There is a great geopolitical advantage in controlling territory in the Pacific and the economic potential of the region is endlessly being contested.

Accordingly, the Sino-American battle over influence in the Pacific will likely mean that consideration for independence movements will be largely overshadowed. Not only this, but the multinational power struggle in the region threatens to embroil the non-sovereign Pacific territories on behalf of their controlling state. This was previously highlighted when North Korea announced plans to launch a missile strike on Guam in retaliation to US threats.

Looking forward, a successful result in New Caledonia’s referendum next month would be a significant landmark achievement for the Pacific as a whole. However, the enduring fight to gain independence will persevere either way. New Caledonia’s status as a French territory is wearing thin and the historic determination of the Kanak people to self-govern and take control of New Caledonia’s sovereign powers is resolute.


Henry Heritage is the Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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