New Caledonia could be on the verge of seceding from France. This is why the world is watching
Many voters from the French territory of New Caledonia went to the polls this Sunday to vote on an independence referendum – again.
They have voted twice on the issue already, but analysts say demographic and political shifts could push the small group of South Pacific islands to independence in this third and final vote.
Such a move could have broader implications, particularly for France and its status as a world power in the resource-rich and strategic Pacific.
And it’s not a wasted moment for China and the United States, either.
The long road to self-determination
The vote comes after more than a century of often violent unrest between the predominantly French settlers of New Caledonia and the indigenous Kanak population.
Among other things, the Kanaks want more control over the economy, including the territory’s vast nickel reserves, the fourth largest in the world. Nickel is becoming increasingly valuable around the world as it is a key component in lithium batteries.
France wanted to hold the referendum this year for many reasons, not least so that it did not overlap with the French national elections of 2022.
But while the third vote is slated for this Sunday, there is a wrinkle: the pro-independence faction doesn’t want it to happen now and has called for “opt-out” – in fact a boycott.
Charles Wea is part of the independence coalition known as FLNKS (the French acronym for the Front National Liberal Kanak et Socialiste), which controls the government of New Caledonia for the first time in more than two decades.
He says pandemic closures have made the campaign difficult. Meanwhile, the virus has killed nearly 300 people across the Melanesian archipelago – most of them Kanaks, he says, who make up about 41% of the territory’s nearly 289,000 people.
“We have asked the French government to postpone the referendum until next year so that the Kanak people can mourn,” Wea said.
Kanak mourning rites can take up to a year, and although Wea has fought in the struggle for self-determination his entire life, he supports the postponement of the referendum.
Ziad Gebran, spokesperson for the French overseas ministry, says that if the pro-independent faction has the right not to participate in the third referendum, the position of Paris “is that it must be organized very quickly to open a new phase of caledonia [sic] the story.”
“We must have other political discussions on the future of the territory,” he said.
But according to the 1998 Noumea Accord – the agreement named after the capital of New Caledonia in which France pledged to grant growing political power to the territory and the Kanaks over the next two decades, and guaranteed the three votes on independence – the final referendum may be until October 2022.
The role of demography and politics
There is reason to believe that a subsequent vote would benefit those who want independence.
Alexandre Dayant, a researcher at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, explains that this is because to vote in the referendum, a voter must have immigrated to the territory before 1988 or be born there at any time and be over the age of 18 years old.
“So basically the longer the Kanaks wait, the demographics play such a role that every year you have new Kanaks of voting age,” Dayant told NPR.
Meanwhile, the number of voters most likely to vote no on independence remains fixed.
Dayant also said the last two referendums showed a clear momentum for independence. During the 2018 referendum, 43.6% of voters said yes to leaving France. About 91% of them were Kanaks.
In the second referendum in 2020, that number had risen to almost 47% of voters in favor of independence.
If a pro-independence majority fails in the third and final referendum, Dayant says things will not really change between France and New Caledonia and that the Noumea accord will be concluded.
Reverbs across the Pacific
If the pro-independence faction does not participate in this weekend’s vote and the status quo is maintained, it could lead to renewed unrest in the territory and destabilization of the region as a whole, argues Denise Fisher, a former Australian diplomat formerly based in the territory and now visiting scholar at the Australian National University Center for European Studies.
“The lessons of history seem to have been forgotten,” she told NPR.
Meanwhile, an independent New Caledonia could also have massive consequences for France as a great power in the Pacific, Fisher said.
“Their Indo-Pacific vision is based on their sovereignty and their various possessions in both oceans. Therefore, its performance in New Caledonia and the immediate reaction of the Pacific to it are extremely important to its status and acceptance as an Indo-Pacific partner, ”she said.
Ahead of the first referendum in 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron told New Caledonians that France would not be the same without them, and warned of a “new hegemony” in the region – a reference to China, who has worked hard to increase its presence in the region.
As the Lowy Institute’s latest Asia Power Index reveals the United States is the Pacific’s top spenders, China lags behind, and experts fear that if New Caledonia gains independence, it could follow the path. partners from the Pacific Kiribati. and the Solomon Islands to align with China.
French loyalists in New Caledonia are skeptical of the military or economic survival of the territory without Paris, which provides the territory with roughly $ 1.5 billion each year.
“There are too many risks, too many uncertainties and too many subjects that have not been dealt with at all,” said David Guyenne, president of the New Caledonian Chamber of Commerce.
While the chamber does not take a position on the referendum on independence, Guyenne, granddaughter of Vietnamese immigrants who arrived in the territory in the 1930s, declared that “the economic world as a whole wants to stay in the French Republic “.
Still, Charles Wea said once his homeland gained independence, they would work with whoever they wanted.
“France, with Australia, with China – any country that wants to help us,” he said.
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