Stability in Australia’s near neighbour across the Coral Sea, and the influence of France in the region, are at risk with a call by pro-independence parties not to participate in New Caledonia’s final independence referendum if France insists on holding it on 12 December. The Melanesian Spearhead Group has called on the United Nations to support postponing the vote.
France’s decision to hold the third, decisive, referendum on 12 December, over the opposition of independence parties, has led to arguably the worst outcome: a call by the independence coalition, the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), for its supporters not to participate. Under the 1998 Noumea Accord, the vote could have been held any time up to October 2022.
The suggestion of a Kanak boycott is dynamite in New Caledonia. Paris’s careful efforts organising the first two referendums under the current process, in 2018 and 2020, were designed to deliver an incontestable vote and demonstrate France’s neutrality to the territory and the region alike.
This was to avoid a repetition of the disastrous 1987 independence vote. Kanaks, who form the bulk of the independence movement, boycotted that process because France allowed people to vote who had been in the territory only three years. That followed a decade of French policy encouraging migration from other parts of France specifically to outnumber the indigenous people and defeat independence demands. With that boycott, the vote unsurprisingly returned 98% support for staying with France. Tensions escalated, culminating in a bloody hostage situation in April 1988, between two rounds of French presidential elections. Twenty-one people died.
No one wants a repetition of the 1987 experience.
Along with the diminished credibility of the 1987 vote, and the suffering of the New Caledonian people, France’s image itself was tarnished. Regional and international pressure mounted. France negotiated agreements ending the violence and promised the unique three-vote referendum process currently underway.
With a deadline of October next year, the FLNKS preferred a later vote so that it could build on the growing support for independence over the previous two referendums, from 43.3% in 2018 to 46.7% in 2020, and exceed the required 50%. Loyalist parties favoured an early vote, to maintain their majority and move the stagnating economy forward. When France’s minister for overseas territories, Sébastien Lecornu, announced the early December date, he acknowledged that it was a unilateral decision but referred to France’s statutory right to set that date. The last meeting of Noumea Accord signatories (in 2019) had agreed that the vote should not coincide with French presidential and parliamentary elections in April and June 2022.
When Lecornu visited New Caledonia in early October, independence leaders raised their concerns again, highlighting the serious impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on their communities and the effect on campaigning of health measures and cultural grieving customs. New Caledonia suffered no deaths up to 9 September 2021, but by 21 October, 245 people had died of Covid out of a population of 280,000. Most were Kanaks.
After Lecornu indicated that the date would only be changed if the pandemic ‘got out of control’, the FLNKS renewed its call for postponement and, on 20 October, called formally for the ‘non-participation’ of its supporters if the referendum were to be held on 12 December. While they avoided the word ‘boycott’ given its local associations, the impact is the same. The same day, the Papua New Guinea representative in New York presented a Melanesian Spearhead Group declaration to the UN Decolonisation Committee noting the effect of the pandemic and supporting the referendum’s deferral.
France’s preparations for this last vote have not been as carefully balanced as for the first two. Apart from unilaterally setting the date, Paris has sought to shape the process to make it more favourable to France, overlooking Kanak sensitivities. France called a May meeting that was not attended by all participants, commissioned and published selective opinion polls, and prepared a paper on the consequences of a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote that focused mostly on the risks of independence. With the resurgence of Covid, France banned non-essential travel to and from the territory until 31 December—after the planned vote. It is bringing in 2,000 security personnel, many more than for the last two votes. While France claims that special measures are necessary for this inevitably more tense final vote and its uncertain aftermath, the overall effect is one of appearing to favour the loyalists.
The ball is now in France’s court. Melanesian countries have expressed their view. Pacific Islands Forum countries and the UN continue to monitor the referendum, having observed the 2018 and 2020 votes. While Australia rightly takes no position on the outcome, it supports the full implementation of the Noumea Accord. Australia along with its Pacific neighbours would expect France to continue the neutrality it displayed in the first two referendums by delivering an incontestable, fair vote in this, the final and decisive independence referendum for New Caledonia.