A World Away: New Caledonian Independence and the Return of Marine Le Pen
Separated by almost 17,000 kilometres of land and sea, continental France and its Pacific territory of New Caledonia are often viewed by analysts as isolated political bubbles. It is not uncommon for journalists to talk about political developments in New Caledonia without considering circumstances in the métropole (continental France) and vice versa. This can blind international observers to events in one region which have visible effects on the other, hamstringing regional stakeholders in Europe and the Indo-Pacific when political crises inevitably arise.
For better or worse, New Caledonia and the métropole form separate parts of the same country - France. This will continue to be the case until at least the New Caledonian independence referendum in 2022. It is therefore key that political developments in each region are analysed in conjunction with those in the other. Politics, after all, does not occur in a vacuum.
Marine Le Pen’s grand retour
Four years after the last presidential election, right-wing populists in France are staging a dramatic return to the political fore. Marine Le Pen, the infamous leader of France’s hard-right National Rally party (RN), has successfully taken advantage of swelling nativism, growing opposition to Islam and mounting frustration with the Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has allowed Le Pen to restore her popularity after her defeat in the 2017 presidential election at the hands of current president, Emmanuel Macron.
Such is the momentum now behind Le Pen that Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, a member of President Macron’s own political party, warned that it is entirely possible Le Pen could take the French presidency in 2022. Le Maire’s warning is supported by recent polling data, which has at times shown Le Pen to be only 4% behind President Macron in terms of two-way public support. This suggests that Le Pen’s hard-right political platform, which came close to upending Macron’s centrist brand in 2017, is now more popular than ever.
Upheaval in New Caledonia
In New Caledonia, meanwhile, significant political transformations are already underway. Only three weeks ago, separatist parties formed the first pro-independence territorial government since 1999. This came after the collapse of the 2019-21 ruling coalition between the territory’s loyalist and pro-independence parties.
The establishment of a separatist-dominated government has placed unprecedented political influence in the hands of the pro-independence movement. As per the 1998 Nouméa Accord, New Caledonia’s third and final independence referendum is set to take place in 2022. Given that a majority of cabinet positions are now held by pro-independence congresspeople, the scales have undoubtedly been tipped in favour of separation from France.
As Darcy French previously discussed in this publication, New Caledonia has already held two referendums on the question of separation from France. The first took place in 2018 and saw 43.3% of voters back independence, while the second referendum vote in 2020 saw that support increase by three and a half points to 46.7%. If that jump in popularity was to be replicated in 2022, it would yield a narrow victory for the pro-independence camp, creating a tense political climate in the leadup to the referendum.
With the stakes so high, it is easy to see why the previous government collapsed. Loyalist and pro-independence politicians were always going to struggle to build a functioning coalition when they knew that the final referendum could be decided by just one or two percentage points. However, the question of independence is not the only issue plaguing New Caledonia’s political landscape.
Of significant concern is also the archipelago’s nickel mining sector, which has dominated the territory’s economy for decades. But after having reported years of consistent losses, the international owners of New Caledonia’s main nickel processing facility have unsuccessfully sought to auction the site. The result of this failure has been a crisis of confidence in the local nickel industry which has placed thousands of critical jobs at risk and even led to violent clashes between separatist activists and the police. A growing budget deficit has also placed immense strain on New Caledonia’s public finances, evoking fierce debate between loyalist and pro-independence activists as to whether the territory could stand on its own two feet in the event of separation from France. Naturally, each camp blames the other for the collapse of the nickel mining industry and the worsening budget deficit, further polarising an already divided New Caledonian congress.
New Caledonia and right-wing populism
Complicated as it may be, the political situation in New Caledonia remains intimately tied to developments in the métropole. This is particularly true when considering the resurgence of Le Pen, who has long maintained a special interest in the status of France’s many overseas territories. For Le Pen, overseas regions such as New Caledonia are not ‘possessions’ or ‘colonies’ of France, but are instead as much a part of France as the métropole itself. This was best exemplified during the 2020 referendum, when Le Pen quoted Charles de Gaulle’s famous reference to New Caledonia as ‘Southern France’.
Le Pen is known for using the same arguments as New Caledonian loyalists when discussing the prospect of the archipelago’s independence. She has repeatedly warned that a successful pro-independence vote would lead to ‘uncertainty and danger’, often using arguments that resemble her anti-EU rhetoric to assert that an independent New Caledonia would quickly fall prey to foreign interests. Put simply, according to Le Pen and the RN, New Caledonia’s interests are best served within the French Republic.
Le Pen’s pro-loyalist activism has earnt her significant support among much of the ethnic French community in New Caledonia, which forms the majority of the territory’s anti-independence movement. In the 2017 presidential election, Le Pen only narrowly lost to Macron during the second round of voting in New Caledonia, scoring 47.43% of the local population’s support. Across France more broadly she was defeated with a significantly smaller 33.90% of the vote. This is proof of a unique political relationship between New Caledonian loyalists and Le Pen, born from the latter’s special attention to New Caledonia’s future as an integral part of France.
So what does rising support for Marine Le Pen in the métropole mean for the increasingly tense situation in New Caledonia?
Although France’s upcoming presidential election and New Caledonia’s independence referendum will both occur in 2022, the presidential election looks set to take place in April, while the referendum will likely be held in November. That leaves six months between the two events, during which time a newly elected Présidente Le Pen could make a raft of changes affecting facts on the ground in New Caledonia.
A week is a long time in politics, but six months is longer. Within only 100 days in office, the ideologically comparable former US President Trump had already managed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, institute his infamous travel ban and appoint a new judge to the Supreme Court. That begs the question of how much more Le Pen could achieve in six months if conditions allowed.
Although President Macron naturally supported New Caledonia’s continued presence within France during the 2018 and 2020 referendums, he nonetheless remained conspicuously quiet on the issue of the archipelago’s independence. This was likely to avoid accusations of métropolitaine interference in a decision which is morally and constitutionally reserved for the New Caledonian people.
There is every chance the next vote could go down to the wire. How then would New Caledonians and the international community react if in 2022, perceived métropolitaine interference in the referendum helped ensure a narrow loyalist victory? There would be dire consequences indeed if the separatists were defeated by one or two per cent, especially if Le Pen had actively supported the loyalist vote. Just as equally, with the New Caledonian Government now led by pro-independence parties, how would relations between the métropole and the archipelago be managed if a passionately loyalist Le Pen occupied the French presidency?
On a knife’s edge
Le Pen has repeatedly issued her support for the rule of law and her respect for the constitutionality of the referendum process in New Caledonia. The referendum process was set out by the 1998 Nouméa Accord in order to avoid a repeat of the intercommunal violence which gripped New Caledonia in the 1980s. Le Pen understands and respects the importance of the Nouméa Accord and as such this article does not seek to suggest that as president, she would tear up the 2022 referendum if it yielded a pro-independence result. However, with relations between New Caledonia’s loyalist and pro-independence parties at rock bottom and violence occasionally breaking out over the future of the archipelago’s nickel industry, it is not difficult to foresee a situation in which a narrow referendum victory for either side might push the situation over the edge.
None of this is to say that Le Pen is destined to be elected President, or that New Caledonia is doomed to political chaos. But with political circumstances in both the métropole and New Caledonia as uncertain as they are, outside observers would do well not to ignore the close political relationship between the two regions. The international community must remain actively engaged throughout the New Caledonian referendum process to ensure that the rule of law is upheld and the right to self-determination is respected. To achieve that end, policymakers must not ignore political developments closer to Paris if they wish to properly understand those occurring in New Caledonia.
Hugh McFarlane is the Outreach and Research Officer and host of the fortnightly ‘Wrap Up’ series within the Young Diplomats Society’s podcast team, ‘Global Questions’. He is in his third year of a Bachelor of Security Studies at Macquarie University, where he also studies French.