Why the future of New Caledonia is in limbo even though the overwhelming majority voted to stay with France
New Caledonians voted to remain a territory of France, but with less than half of eligible voters showing up to the polls, questions remain about the future of the Pacific territory.
Sunday’s third and possibly last independence referendum came about despite calls from pro-independence leaders to postpone the vote.
The official results revealed that although 96.49 percent of voters rejected independence from France, only 43.9 percent of eligible voters turned out to vote.
Indeed, independence groups, composed mainly of indigenous Kanaks, had called for a boycott of the referendum after France refused a request to delay the poll to allow a period of traditional mourning after an increase in COVID cases in September.
The boycott had a clear impact on voter turnout compared to previous votes. In 2018 and 2020, participation rates were almost double that of this year, at over 80%.
“This third referendum has revealed very well a fracture and separation of society,” said John Passa, sociologist at the University of New Caledonia.
The territory is now facing an uncertain future, because the independence groups refuse to discuss the future of New Caledonia with France.
Is the vote valid?
France does not have compulsory voting, and therefore there is no minimum participation rate necessary for the results to be verified.
New Caledonian Voting Commissioner Francis Lamy authorized the results yesterday, saying United Nations election experts had certified the results.
He said the boycott “does not affect the regularity or legitimacy of the December 12 vote,” and that since voters were free to vote, the result was not compromised.
Anti-independence politician Thierry Santa, chairman of New Caledonian conservative Le Rassemblement, says the results show the majority of New Caledonians want to stay with France.
“Despite this strong boycott, I consider it the third time that we Caledonians have expressed ourselves,” he said.
“The first two times everyone voted, and the No won the majority.”
But not everyone agrees.
Roch Wamytan, a pro-independence politician and president of the New Caledonian Congress, called for the results to be canceled.
He is currently in France and says he is seeking advice from the UN on how to organize another independence vote next year.
“For us, it was not the third referendum,” Wamytan said in an interview with franceinfo.
“I denounced, before the United Nations, the fact that the French government organized this referendum on December 12, even though we did what was necessary … for the president [Emmanuel] Macron to postpone the vote until September 2022. “
Although New Caledonia is now in a transition period until 2023 to decide its future, independence groups have refused to start discussions until the French presidential election in April next year.
Why were there three votes – and could there be another?
It may sound like dÃ©jÃ vu in the Pacific archipelago, with voters being asked the same question three times: “Do you want New Caledonia to acquire full sovereignty and become independent?”
Votes for independence were held in 2018, 2020 and 2021 due to a 30-year peace accord called the NoumÃ©a Accords, signed and voted on in 1998 and set to end once the final referendum is held.
It states that New Caledonians can have up to three chances to sever ties with France, provided that a third of Congress agrees with the decision.
Under the agreement, if all three votes result in a majority ‘no’ – as is currently the case – then the territory will not have the opportunity to ‘go back’.
But Dr Passa says it will be difficult for France to proceed without the cooperation of independence groups.
“[The French state] have decided (…) that there will be no more votes, that once we have reached the end of the Noumea Accord, everything will go back to being as before, “he declared.
Mr Santa, the anti-independence politician, agrees another referendum is needed, but says he should not ask voters about independence.
“From today, we are opening a new blank page in the history of New Caledonia that we must all write together,” he said.
“We must sit down to table, discuss together a new solution, a new agreement which will then be presented to the Caledonian people so that they can vote on it for the next referendum.”
What does this mean for Australia and the Pacific?
The Melanesian spearhead group, which includes representatives from PNG, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and the independence party FLNKS of New Caledonia, urged the UN to mark the third referendum as “null and void.”
âThe turnout was less than 50% of registered voters and therefore cannot be considered the legitimate wish of the silent majority! The MSG said in a tweet.
In 2018 and 2020, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne issued a statement on the referendum in New Caledonia the day after the vote, but this year there was no statement.
The ABC has yet to receive a response from the Foreign Ministry on New Caledonia’s referendum on Sunday.
Dr Passa says uncertainty over New Caledonia’s future and its continued dependence on France have compromised its relations with countries in the Pacific, including Australia.
He says it would be more efficient and less costly if New Caledonia could find solutions in the region.
“There will always be solidarity within the Pacific,” he said.
Can peace be maintained?
Although France stepped up its troops and police force over the referendum weekend, the vote went smoothly.
No major cases of violence or unrest have been recorded, despite fears that the boycott may rekindle long-standing tensions between pro and anti-independence blocs.
But for many Kanaks, the desire for independence is linked to their hope that New Caledonia will recognize and come to terms with its violent colonial heritage.
Emmanuel Tjibaou’s father, Jean-Marie, was the leader of the Kanak independence movement before being assassinated in 1989.
His grandfather was only 10 years old when the French army killed members of his tribe for refusing to participate in World War I.
“It is a long way to go for us, but we still believe that our country will remain free,” he said.
“We believe that our future will never pass under the French flag.”
Dr Passa calls the violence a “trap” that separatist groups could fall into, but says the inequalities between Kanaks and non-native New Caledonians have exposed the need for more permanent land change.
“The relationship with France has always been a colonial relationship,” he said.
“The separatist Kanaks do not want to end New Caledonia’s relationship with France, they ask us to review this relationship.”
Many voters alongside France also believe in a “common destiny” which shares New Caledonia’s wealth more equitably and enhances the Kanak identity.
Mr. Santa says that France is the only country that can protect the Kanak people and keep the peace.
“We need France to protect our freedoms, build the identity of our future and respect the Kanak identity,” he said, adding that the mining assets of an independent New Caledonia could fall into the hands of of China without the protection of France.
“I am not sure that China will respect our traditions, our culture, our way of life,” he said.
He is optimistic that pro-independence politicians will soon join discussions on the future of New Caledonia.
“I am sure they will take their responsibility to come to the table to discuss,” he said.