When France’s overseas minister, Sébastien Lecornu, announced that New Caledonia’s third self-determination referendum will be held this December, he created a major challenge for the main independence coalition, the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste, or FLNKS. The stakes are high, and time is short.
Under a 1998 agreement known as the Noumea Accord, two referendums have already been held on New Caledonia’s political status. In both cases, a majority of registered voters opposed independence. But the narrow victory for the No vote — 57 to 43 per cent on 4 November 2018 and an even closer 53 to 47 per cent on 4 October 2020 — worried the French government and anti-independence leaders in New Caledonia.
If a majority votes Yes on 12 December, says the French government, local leaders will need to negotiate a new constitution for the independent nation Kanaky New Caledonia, to be put to a popular referendum. But only eighteen months would then be allowed for new agreements on finance, passports, security and other issues between France and the independent state.
A No vote would open the way to a different set of negotiations. The French government proposes replacing the 1998 Noumea Accord, which has devolved many powers to its Pacific dependency. But some local leaders are worried it may unilaterally reform the law that introduced the Accord into the French constitution, rendering unconstitutional the many gains the indigenous Kanak people have made over the past twenty years.
Whether the vote is Yes or No, overseas minister Lecornu says that the transition to new governing arrangements must be complete by 30 June 2023.
While political debate has been intense in New Caledonia, the independence question is exciting little interest in France. Amid austerity, the pandemic and the debate about Europe’s future after Brexit, many ordinary citizens see little point in pumping taxpayers’ money into the network of overseas dependencies that make up the French empire. One opinion poll, taken in late April, shows 66 per cent of those surveyed would support New Caledonia’s “separation” from France. This figure worries anti-independence leaders who say, correctly, that it doesn’t reflect the opinion of French nationals of European heritage living in New Caledonia.
With the second referendum held just eight months ago, calling another vote in December has angered independence leaders, who had proposed that the third poll take place in September or October next year. Anti-independence leaders pushed for the earlier date, believing they can stall the momentum towards independence.
The debate over timing is also driven by domestic French politics. Emmanuel Macron will face off against the extreme right’s Marine Le Pen in next April’s French presidential election. In the second run-off vote, he will desperately need support from centre-right voters and the conservative Les Républicains party. Macron’s own party, La République En Marche, may seek to win friends on the right by promising to back Les Républicains against New Caledonia’s current deputies in the National Assembly — Calédonie ensemble’s Philippe Gomes and Philippe Dunoyer — in next June’s elections for the French legislature.
Over the past two decades, the transition to a new political status for New Caledonia has been monitored by regular meetings of the cross-party Committee of Signatories to the Noumea Accord. But since the first referendum, in 2018, that process has been fraught. With the two votes having raised the stakes, the multi-party government of New Caledonia has often seemed paralysed, unable to agree on key policies and budgets.
Five pro-independence members of the collegial government resigned in February, bringing down president Thierry Santa, leader of the conservative anti-independence alliance Avenir en Confiance. Despite the election of a new eleven-member executive by New Caledonia’s congress in April, Santa has remained caretaker leader because of a dispute over his replacement between the two main pro-independence groups in parliament, UC-FLNKS and Union Nationale pour l’Indépendance.
To break this cycle of mistrust, the young, ambitious Lecornu has promoted informal networks for dialogue. After last year’s conflict over the sale of nickel assets in the Southern Province, Lecornu established the Leprédour group, an irregular meeting of five politicians from anti-independence parties and five from the FLNKS, rather than seeking consensus in the Committee of Signatories.
He then called a meeting of key New Caledonian leaders in Paris between 25 May and 3 June, supposedly for a roundtable discussion but in reality to ram through a series of decisions. Speaking after the meeting, he made clear that the decision to proceed to a referendum this year was made by the French government. “This date is not the subject of a consensus,” he said, “It’s not an agreement. It’s an initiative that we are taking within the strict framework of the powers of the French State.”
Returning to Noumea after the roundtable, Gilbert Tyuiénon, a leading member of the largest independence party, Union Calédonienne, expressed concern that French domestic politics rather than New Caledonian interests were driving the agenda. While he acknowledged that the choice of referendum date is in the hands of the French government, he argued that it had “taken advantage of the constraints of the national electoral calendar, rather than the expectations expressed by the independence movement. The date of 12 December was therefore not the subject of a consensus decision.”
Louis Mapou, a leading independence activist in New Caledonia’s Southern Province and one of two candidates contending for the presidency of New Caledonia, says the rushed timing imposed by the French state is promoting deep anger among grassroots independence supporters. “Our activists are advocating a boycott, because all Kanak say that this is too much of a rush,” said Mapou. “We have long pleaded that the referendum not be held before the end of the year. Can this guarantee that the independence movement will participate? And beyond this, who can guarantee that we in the leadership will be followed?”
When he announced the roundtable in Paris, Lecornu hoped to engage key political leaders across the spectrum. But a number were reluctant to participate, arguing the format would restrict the topics that needed to be discussed. Union Nationale pour l’Indépendance leader Paul Néaoutyine, president of the Northern Province, boycotted the meeting and UNI delegation members Louis Mapou and Victor Tutugoro then refused to attend. Union Calédonienne leaders agreed to travel to France but said they had come to present their point of view, not to negotiate.
Long-time conservative politician Pierre Frogier, New Caledonia’s representative in the French Senate, also declined to participate. He also attacked the “deep state” of French bureaucrats for their lack of interest in the concerns of New Caledonians. His boycott highlights the classic fear among pro-France politicians that sections of the French government are eager to walk away from France’s overseas colonies — a claim that surprises FLNKS leaders who argue, with more evidence, that the opposite is true.
Other politicians — including Milakulo Tukumuli and Vaimua Muliava, leaders of Éveil Océanien — travelled to Paris hoping to participate in the week of meetings. Even though their Wallisian party holds the balance of numbers in New Caledonia’s congress, they were unable to join key meetings. “We did not actually meet the prime minister,” complained Tukumuli, referring to Jean Castex, “quite simply because we did not have an appointment with him.”
Much of the discussion in Paris was framed around an official French government document setting out its views on the legal, constitutional and financial implications of both a Yes and a No vote in a third referendum. A draft of the document was sent confidentially to chosen participants before the meeting, but was quickly leaked to the conservative blog Calédosphere in the hope that elements of France’s response to the vote will scare New Caledonians away from supporting independence.
The leaked draft states, for example: “In the event of independence, as the funding currently granted by the French State becomes null and void, the new State [of Kanaky New Caledonia] will have to mobilise resources to finance its public service and social services. The question of the settlement of financial debts and investments made by the French State, as well as its property and property rights, will also have to be dealt with by the new State.”
It also states that “France does not exercise judicial jurisdiction outside its national territory. In the event of independence, therefore, the judicial system will have to be defined and managed by the new State… In the event of independence of the territory, the overseas tax exemption mechanisms provided for by French law, being reserved for companies present on national territory, will no longer be applicable on the territory of the new State at the end of the transition period.”
The independence movement will shed few tears that the tax lurks and financial subsidies that have benefited a small segment of the European elite in Noumea will be withdrawn. Many Kanak will also welcome the opportunity to reform the judicial and legal system to reflect local realities, replacing the French jurisprudence that has seen indigenous people making up 80 per cent of prisoners in Camp Est, New Caledonia’s main prison. Despite this, French funding for secondary teachers is a major budget item, and there are few Kanak lawyers, doctors and professionals, even after nearly 170 years of colonisation.
The FLNKS has long recognised that a Yes vote will be followed by a transitional period before the new nation can be born. Indeed, an FLNKS policy statement released in 2018 proposed negotiations over finance, technical assistance and security to develop a new relationship with France, but also new agreements on trade and economic support with Australia, New Zealand, the Melanesian Spearhead Group and other neighbours. The decades-long struggle for independence has always been based on the notion that New Caledonia must be better integrated into its regional environment rather than always look to Paris for solutions, even though many of the legal and cultural ties created during the colonial era will persist.
Yet the French government says it will rapidly withdraw funding amounting to more than €1 billion a year, and that future support will be determined only after tough political negotiations. Not surprisingly, anti-independence leaders have seized on the Yes/No document’s tight timeline to argue that New Caledonia will face a fiscal crisis and a collapse of the local bureaucracy before new arrangements are settled.
“Part of the French State’s financial transfers will come to an abrupt end and the other part progressively over time, but in a very short period,” anti-independence leader Sonia Backès told journalists in Paris. “Our degrees will no longer be recognised and it will require lengthy approaches to other countries (France, Australia, New Zealand, Canada…) to have them welcome our students into their countries. Our currency will be devalued: wages may be cut in half.”
Despite the disagreement about the timing of the referendum, Union Calédonienne’s Gilbert Tyuiénon believes the Paris meeting had a number of positive outcomes. The French government made clear the “irreversibility” of the Noumea Accord, he says, “confirming that the accord won’t lead to a political vacuum, whatever the result of the third referendum; that France would not call for the withdrawal of New Caledonia from the list of non-self-governing territories at the United Nations; that an audit of the decolonisation process would be undertaken; that a process involving restrictions on the right to vote would still be possible within the framework of a new agreement; and that a double nationality would be possible for citizens of the future nation.”
The French government also rejected “any form of partition of the country,” he added. For Kanak, the vast majority of the population in the North and Loyalty Islands provinces, this is a welcome response to efforts by some anti-independence leaders to shift more power to the Southern province, in the vain hope that part of the main island might somehow remain a French dependency after independence.
Meanwhile, many New Caledonians will again be making their own calculations about the pros and cons of independence.
A few years ago, I had a long discussion with a French friend about whether he would stay in an independent Kanaky. He gave me a detailed account of the advantages provided by a French passport, with work and education opportunities for his children in Europe and the enormous tax benefits and subsidies that come with living in a French overseas dependency. He had obviously thought a lot about the issue and was reluctant to become a citizen of the new state unless he could also retain French nationality.
The Noumea Accord created a distinct group of New Caledonian citizens — indigenous Kanak and long-term residents — who gain employment rights and can vote for the three provincial assemblies and national congress. (A separate electoral roll with different residency requirements includes New Caledonian citizens seeking to vote in the referendums on self-determination.) But tens of thousands of French nationals living in New Caledonia are ineligible to vote for local political institutions, even though they are enrolled to vote for the French presidency, the National Assembly, the Senate, the European parliament and municipal councils. Anti-independence leaders are pushing for a revision of these voting rights, opening up the local electoral rolls to more French nationals.
The leaked Yes/No report argues that “the restricted, fixed electorate in particular constitutes a restriction that cannot be sustained in its current configuration,” but this push is being fiercely resisted by the independence movement. Many Kanak fear they will be made an even greater minority in their homeland, like Maori in Aotearoa–New Zealand.
Anti-independence leaders are quick to highlight the potential loss of French and EU passports for French nationals who take out citizenship in the new state. “In the event of independence,” says the draft Yes/No report, “nationals of the new State would lose the benefits of European citizenship.” France and the newly independent state might try to negotiate a system of double nationality but “French nationals who have not acquired the nationality of the new State at the same time will also be foreigners in New Caledonia. They will therefore be subject to the law of foreigners determined sovereignly by the new State.”
Some French nationals appear to already be packing their bags. The latest census, in 2019, reported 271,400 inhabitants of New Caledonia, with the population having increased by only 2600 people in the last five years (a much lower number that the period from 2009 to 2014). According to New Caledonia’s official Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies, the decline in the rate of population growth “is mainly explained by an increase in departures, combined with a decrease in arrivals. For the first time since 1983, the migratory balance is negative.”
Many more French nationals are likely to desert New Caledonia if they face losing access to their EU passport and the high salaries and tax benefits that come as a resident of France’s overseas empire. Although the Yes/No report says that, beyond departing French public servants and soldiers, “the number of those leaving is difficult to calculate with precision,” it also claims 10,000 people are certain to leave if independence goes ahead, and “up to 70,000 departures are possible, impacting the labour force, domestic consumption and taxation receipts.”
When Emmanuel Macron delivered a speech on French–Australian relations from the deck of HMAS Canberra in Sydney Harbour in May 2018, he highlighted the potential for an “India–Australia–France axis” in the Indo-Pacific region to help contain China. This re-framing of the Asia-Pacific region as the “Indo-Pacific” has become the new trope as the Biden administration reinforces and expands the US alliance structure in the aftermath of the chaotic Trump era.
With New Caledonia a key pivot point in France’s Indo-Pacific strategy, it’s no surprise that Macron’s administration is encouraging New Caledonian politicians to increase collaboration with Australia and New Zealand. The ANZUS allies now see France as a “democratic, stable and Western power” in the region, and both Canberra and Wellington have given up any public criticism of French colonialism, as they boost defence cooperation.
In Paris last month, overseas minister Lecornu acknowledged that the debate over New Caledonia’s political future is overlaid by geopolitics. The referendum is a time, he said, “when the government looks at what New Caledonia contributes to France. Where we must reflect on France’s ability to be present in the Pacific, where the world is carved up between the USA and China.”
Others were less subtle about playing the China card. “I plan to meet the United States, New Zealand and Australian embassies,” Sonia Backès bluntly remarked en route to Paris last month, “to make them aware of the China threat in the case of independence.”
On 7 June, after visiting the US embassy, Backès met with Australian ambassador Gillian Bird as part of her schedule of meetings with visiting New Caledonian political leaders. A spokesperson from the NZ foreign affairs ministry confirmed that Backès also met with NZ ambassador Jane Coombs, stating that “France remains an important and like-minded partner for New Zealand in the Indo-Pacific region and globally.”
After meetings with prime minister Jean Castex and France’s overseas ministry, some of the New Caledonian delegation also met with the defence ministry and senior military officers to discuss “the role of military forces in the Pacific and the strategic implications of French positioning in the Pacific Ocean and the Indo-Pacific axis.”
The French government claims to take an impartial stand on the outcome of the next referendum. But given the implications for other Pacific dependencies such as French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna and Clipperton Island, it is eager to maintain colonial control in New Caledonia.
Under the Noumea Accord, France retains control of the “sovereign powers” of defence, justice and military security, which has given it increased access to regional security programs through New Caledonia’s membership of the Pacific Islands Forum. But in the absence of a new defence cooperation agreement with an independent Kanaky New Caledonia, the French government is proposing a rapid departure of its military forces in the territory, the Forces Armées de la Nouvelle-Calédonie.
Many Kanak, remembering the role of the French army in the armed clashes of the 1980s and the 1988 Ouvea massacre, would welcome this. But a newly independent government would still need vessels to patrol its fishing grounds and vast exclusive economic zone. Would it seek an extension of French military deployments (as occurred in post-independence Algeria)? Would it look to Australia’s Pacific Maritime Security Program? Or might it perhaps seek support from other partners, in the way Timor-Leste looks to China as well as Australia for patrol boats and security training?
With just six months before the 12 December referendum, there’s no guarantee that the timetable can hold. The FLNKS and other independence forces are discussing the best way to respond to the rushed, unilateral decision on the referendum. The ominous silence of many Kanak leaders should not be taken as consent, and France’s current manoeuvres should worry Australia, New Zealand and other member states of the Pacific Islands Forum. The perception that the French government has broken its word, abandoning a past commitment to forging consensus between supporters and opponents of independence, will have significant repercussions in Melanesian culture.
The decision facing New Caledonians is stark: whether to retain the familiar ties with the French motherland or take a leap into history. The overwhelming majority, both supporters and opponents of independence, have accepted the outcome of the two previous referendums as broadly free and fair. But will they respond in a similar way after this third referendum, if the process has been curtailed to fit in with President Macron’s re-election bid? •
Reporting for this article was supported by a Sean Dorney Grant for Pacific Journalism through the Walkley Public Fund.