Author: Jon Fraenkel, Victoria University of Wellington
The categorical victory of 96.5% of the anti-independence movement in the referendum of December 12, 2021 in New Caledonia was applauded by many French politicians. French President Emmanuel Macron said this ended the “binary choice” that had long preoccupied France’s distant Pacific territory.
Macron dismissed the low turnout of 43.9% as legally insignificant, although it was just over half of the 85.6% who voted in the previous referendum on the independence in October 2020. Calls by the Kanak Liberation and Socialist Pro-Independence Front (FLNKS) to delay the ballot due to the debilitating impact of COVID-19 on Kanak communities have fallen on deaf ears. The separatist parties therefore refused to participate, leaving the voting booths empty in predominantly Kanak neighborhoods.
The fiercely anti-independence parties in New Caledonia preferred to quickly conclude the three ballots provided for by the 1998 Noumea Accord. They feared that any delay would play into the hands of the separatists. Paris wanted to complete the cycle of referendums before the presidential election in April 2022, but in the process, the search for a consensual result was abandoned.
The close alignment between Paris and the loyalists of New Caledonia ended the traditional portrayal of France’s role as that of a neutral arbiter in the domestic feuds of its imperial outpost. In 1988, the government of Michel Rocard negotiated a peace agreement to put an end to the violent inter-community conflicts of the 1980s. The Matignon-Oudinot agreements promised a referendum a decade later, offered positive measures for disadvantaged Kanak communities and established provincial administrations covering the predominantly indigenous regions of the Northern Islands and the Loyalty Islands.
When the planned ballot expired in 1998, the two parties negotiated a follow-up agreement, the Noumea Accord. This pushed back the date of an independence referendum from 15 to 20 years and launched a power-sharing deal under which pro and anti-independence politicians were to collaborate in collegiate government.
Under the Nouméa Accord, various executive powers were gradually transferred from Paris to Nouméa. The final decision on whether or not to transfer the remaining “sovereign powers” – including defense, foreign affairs and justice – hinged on the cycle of three referendums that took place in 2018-2021.
Although the decision to hold the third referendum was taken by the Territorial Assembly of New Caledonia, the French government unilaterally set the 12e Date of the December referendum. The Noumea Accord provides that only the support of a third of the 54 members of Congress was required for a final ballot to take place. In formal legal terms, Paris may have acted within its statutory powers in setting the date, but this resulted in a hasty timeline with the third referendum only taking place 14 months after the second.
Until recently, time seemed to be on the separatist side. The “no” fell from 56.7% in 2018 to 53.3% in 2020. By agreement, the right to vote was limited to those who arrived before 1994, much to the dismay of loyalist parties. More and more young Kanak voters have come of age, while in net terms around 2,000 New Caledonians leave the territory each year, mostly non-natives.
The strategy of the FLNKS was to forge alliances with other communities, known as “victims of history”, including the colonists who were brought to the territory under French domination. This approach seemed to be paying off. In February, a party representing the descendants of migrants from the islands of Wallis and Futuna, or about 8.3% of the population, changed sides to support the election of the territory’s first Kanak president.
The abandonment of the 33-year-old path of seeking at least a partial consensus in the management of New Caledonian affairs is first and foremost a response to developments in metropolitan France. In 2022, Macron faces presidential and legislative elections with the main threat coming from right-wing parties that have close ties to loyalists in New Caledonia.
With the referendum concluded, the anti-independence parties of New Caledonia now want to assert their advantage by ending the restrictions on the right to vote, which also apply to provincial elections, and by putting an end to the “rebalancing” programs. »Which give a disproportionate share to local government spending. provinces with an indigenous majority.
The limits of the Noumea Voting Rights Accord may contradict Gaullist traditions of “equal citizenship” and “one and indivisible republic”, but they were an essential part of the agreement. Its signatories acknowledged that New Caledonia’s population had been unfairly inflated in the 1970s and 1980s by the arrival of thousands of colonists from the continent, many of whom still circulate back and forth on short-term contracts.
Like the anti-independence parties of New Caledonia, President Macron and his Overseas Minister Sébastien Lecornu now affirm that the era of the Nouméa accords is over and that the time has come to establish a new status. However, the Noumea Accord provides that, whatever the outcome of the third referendum, “the political organization established by the 1998 agreement will remain in force, at its last stage of development, without the possibility of going back, this “irreversibility” being constitutionally guaranteed. ‘.
New Caledonia therefore still has an institutional apparatus based on a constitutionalized pact between two communities – which is based on the search for a compromise – but now with a referendum result which has led to a break with the search for a political settlement. mutually agreed.
In the long term, therefore, Paris may have shot himself in the foot. Because of the insistence on a non-consensual referendum without Kanak participation, the moral authority of the future will belong to those who seek a more thorough but fairer competition, with the involvement of all the communities.
Jon Fraenkel is Professor of Comparative Politics at Victoria University of Wellington.
He is indebted to Denise Fisher and Adrian Muckle for their comments on an earlier version.