New Caledonia rejects independence from France – Next referendum possible in 2020

A referendum held in the French Pacific island territory of New Caledonia on 4 November 2018 came to the result that New Caledonia will stay a part of France. The results were not a surprise – various polls prior to the referendum had shown results of 63 to 65 per cent voting for a rejection of political independence. Still, they were by far tighter than the polls had predicted, with 56.4 per cent voting for status quo, while 43.6 per cent favouring separation from France. Observers stated that the turnout rate of over 80 per cent was exceptionally high, surpassing those of 2014 election for the territorial Congress and the 2017 French presidential election.

 

Not all New Caledonians were allowed to participate in the referendum.  Voters had to subscribe to the LESC (liste électorale spéciale, a special electoral roll for referendums). The registration was only possible for persons with a residence for a continuous period of 20 years, citizens born before 1 January 1989 living in New Caledonia from 1988 to 1998, citizens born after 1 January 1989 with a parent who was on the special electoral roll for the 1998 Nouméa Accord referendum and persons born in New Caledonia with three years' continuous residence prior to 31 August 2018. About 175,000 people out of New Caledonia’s ca. 268,000 inhabitants were eligible to vote.

 

There are multiple reasons for the outcome of the referendum. The majority of New Caledonia’s indigenous Kanak community voted for independence, while most citizens of colonial descent preferred that the Pacific island remains part of France. The North Province and the Loyalty Islands, which have Kanak majorities of 73.8 and 96.6 per cent respectively, were among those parts of the New Caledonia voting in favour of political sovereignty. The majority of voters in the South Province, where most inhabitants are ethnic European, chose to stay with France.  However, the indigenous people make up less than 50 per cent of the electorate. The Kanak people’s strong stance for independence is also an expression of discontent. Many Kanak families are economically disadvantaged compared to New Caledonians of colonial descent. As a matter of fact, many Kanak communities struggle with high school dropout rates, unemployment and poor housing conditions.

Other reasons are long-grown economic dependencies on the French Government, which allocates funds of 1.3 billion Euros every year to the small Pacific island. New Caledonia is known as a tourist destination and home to one of the world’s largest nickel deposits. Nevertheless, many New Caledonians fear that the country’s assets and resources are not sufficient to sustain prosperity in the country.

While this referendum was a setback for the pro-independence alliance ‘Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front’ (FLNKS), it has created high expectations for future referendums. In 1998 the French government signed an agreement with the FLNKS, opening up the possibility to hold three referendums on full independence in 2018, 2020 and 2022, should the local government wish to hold them. FLNKS spokesperson, Daniel Goa, commented on the referendum results “For us it's just a question of time, and you know that time in Oceania is measured differently […] As long as a single Kanak person is standing, he will fight for his freedom. We are this country, we are this land, it is Kanak and it will remain Kanak forever."