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New Caledonia Votes 'No' - For Now

Voter's feet underneath a curtain of a voting booth
Source: AFP via Getty Images

Darcy French

For the second time in less than two years, New Caledonia’s 180,000 inhabitants have said “no” to independence from France. Despite their second consecutive defeat, pro-independence groups are still optimistic. Crucially, the “yes” vote increased to 46.7% this time, up from 43.6% in 2018. With the likelihood of a third referendum being held before 2022, hopes of an independent New Caledonia are still alive.

To understand why New Caledonia is conducting this series of referendums in such a short space of time, we need to explore the island’s recent history. First colonised by the French in 1853, New Caledonia has a long and complicated relationship with the métropole (as the French mainland is known in overseas territories).

By the 1980s, violence between the Indigenous Kanak population and the island’s European inhabitants, known as the Caldoche, was rife. When the pro-independence Front de Libération Nationale Kanake et Socialiste (FLNKS) and the loyalist Rassemblement Pour la Calédonie dans la République (RPCR) signed the Matignon Accords in 1988, an independence referendum was scheduled to be held ten years later.

However, the signing of the Noumea Accord in 1998 delayed the question of independence for at least 15 years, and committed pro-independence and loyalist groups to a process of reconciliation and decolonisation. The Accord also provided a mechanism for up to three independence referendums to be held between 2014 and 2022. This brings us to a potential third and final referendum – a vote in which pro-independence groups will be hopeful of long-awaited success.

So will it be third time lucky for supporters of a sovereign New Caledonia? What explains the change in the vote between 2018 and 2020? To answer these questions, we spoke with Alexandre Dayant, a research fellow in the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute. Unsurprisingly, there are several factors at play.

For Dayant, one of the crucial factors in the rising “yes” vote was a well-run independence campaign. Dayant argues that pro-independence groups successfully mobilised the youth vote, and critical groups that abstained in 2018 this time came out to campaign and vote.

Dayant also describes a disorganised and fractured loyalist camp further set back by a public perception that the mainland Government has disengaged since the appointment of the new French Prime Minister, Jean Castex, earlier this year. Both these factors are likely to have driven more people to the pro-independence camp.

Demography and ethnicity also have crucial roles to play, according to Dayant. Superimposing the municipal voting patterns in the 2018 referendum onto a map of the ethnic makeup of New Caledonia’s provinces paints a telling picture. Where the Indigenous Kanak people make up a greater proportion of the population, there is a clear and significant increase in the vote for independence. Dayant’s reporting for the Lowy Institute describes a 96% correlation between these two variables. Conversely, New Caledonians identifying as “European” voted against independence by a factor of nine-to-one. These statistics make it clear that voting patterns are tied up in questions of identity, ethnicity, and the legacies of colonialism.

Demographic trends also increasingly favour the push for independence. There are more young Kanaks in New Caledonia than young people of Cardoche and non-Kanak descent, meaning there will be more young Kanaks voting in 2022 than non-Kanak youth. It would be likely that these extra votes will predominantly be for independence.

And of course, like everywhere on earth, the Covid-19 pandemic has shaped 2020 in ways the people of New Caledonia could never have predicted. While the métropole records case numbers in the tens of thousands, New Caledonia has recorded only 27 confirmed cases of the disease with no community transmission and no deaths. The economic downturn, however, has been severe. The collapse in global and regional tourism was always going to have severe consequences for the island’s economy. However, Dayant points out that pro-independence groups accuse the French government of unnecessarily harming the New Caledonian economy by enforcing lockdown rules that were designed for Paris, not Noumea. The blanket imposition of these rules in the early stages of the pandemic was unnecessary in New Caledonia. It has shown many people that the French government is increasingly “out of touch” with life on the island.

Dayant says that the successful suppression of the virus in New Caledonia – as well as the mismanaged response from the métropole – has shown many New Caledonians that “they can take control of their own country, they can do better than France in managing the Covid-19 crisis, and most importantly, they can decide the future of New Caledonia”.

Reflecting on these themes, Dayant predicts a third referendum to go down to the wire, but worries this may create more uncertainty rather than less. Almost a quarter-century after the Noumea Accord, political and ethnic divides “may be clearer than ever”. The next two years will be crucial in determining the future of the self-proclaimed ‘Heart of the Pacific’.

For now, however, New Caledonia remains a part of the French Republic. With a struggling economy and a worrisome La Niña season approaching, much hard work and nation-building lies ahead of the New Caledonian people, whether as a French colony or an independent state.


Darcy French is in the second year of their dual master’s degree between Sciences Po in Paris and Peking University in Beijing.