Saturday, November 3, 2018

New Caledonia Voting on Independence from France

Update: Preliminary results of the referendum are in - check out our follow up article for the details!

The islands of New Caledonia, and their location in the South Pacific. Map by NormanEinstein (CC BY-SA; source)
This Sunday, the South Pacific islands of New Caledonia will vote on whether to declare independence from France. The referendum is the culmination of a 20-year process set in motion by the Nouméa Accord of 1998, the French government agreed to gradually transfer power to the islands' own institutions.

Have some questions? Great - we've got your answers! Read on for a quick summary of what exactly is going on:

What is New Caledonia, if it's not a country already?

Though it's on the other side of the world from Europe, New Caledonia is officially part of France. Like all inhabited areas of overseas France, its people are French citizens, have representation in both houses of the French Parliament and the European Union's parliament, and can vote in elections for the president of France.

However, New Caledonia has more autonomy (self-governance) than any other part of France. Unlike European regions of France - even overseas regions like French Guiana, Guadeloupe, or Mayotte - New Caledonia has its own legislature, citizenship, and flag, with the right to make its own laws for most internal purposes. The French government in Paris is still in charge of defense, border control, and some other areas of governance.

French Polynesia and other French "overseas collectivities" like St. Barts and Saint Martin also have some self-governance, but under the 1998 Nouméa Accord, New Caledonia has a special status making it something in between a self-governing "collectivity" and an independent country.

Flag of France

New Caledonia Kanak flag
The French Tricolor (top) and the "Kanak flag" (bottom) are co-official flags of New Caledonia
Official Name:
• New Caledonia (English) 
• Nouvelle-Calédonie (French)
Capital: Nouméa
Status:  
Sui generis ("one of a kind") special collectivity of France
• Overseas country/territory of the European Union
For more on the history and politics of New Caledonia, check out this explainer from TheConversation.com.

What exactly is New Caledonia's referendum question?

Compared to the Republic of Macedonia's recent "name change" referendum, the question on New Caledonian ballots this weekend is pretty straightforward. Voters will be asked (in French):

Voulez-vous que la Nouvelle-Calédonie accède à la pleine souveraineté et devienne indépendante?

Translated to English:

Do you want New Caledonia to attain full sovereignty and become independent?

Will New Caledonia become independent if the YES vote wins?

Unlike the controversial referendums in Kurdistan and Catalonia a year ago - which were held in defiance of the governments they were voting on breaking away from - France has agreed to accept the results of New Caledonia's referendum. That means that if the people vote YES on independence, New Caledonia would actually become the world's next recognized, independent country - the first since South Sudan gained independence in 2011. The new country would almost certainly be accepted into the United Nations (UN) and find acceptance from all the other countries of the world.

In fact, France is taking an even friendlier stance towards this referendum than the UK did towards Scotland's fully-legal independence vote in 2014. Unlike that one, where the London government campaigned against independence, in this case Paris has promised to stay "strictly neutral" in the run-up to New Caledonia's referendum.

New Caledonia probably wouldn't declare official independence immediately after the vote - there would be a period of transition, and we're guessing the formal handover of power might happen a few months to a year down the line. Whether the islanders get to keep their French citizenship depends on the details of a future law to be passed in Paris. Meanwhile, funding from the French government would end - or more likely be replaced by a newly-negotiated deal between the two independent countries.

Declaring independence would also mean leaving the European Union, since New Caledonia would no longer be part of member country France, and independent countries have to be located in Europe to join separately.

Okay, so what happens if New Caledonia votes against independence?

It wouldn't be the first time, or necessarily the last. A first vote on staying in France passed in 1958, and an independence referendum was held in 1987, but the YES side got only 1.7% of the vote after pro-independence groups led a boycott. If this one doesn't pass either, France will likely agree to another vote in the year 2020, and yet another in 2022 if necessary. In the meantime, the islands will keep their current status.

What would an independent New Caledonia be called?

As you might guess, "New Caledonia" isn't the original, native name of these islands. Caledonia is a historical name for Scotland, and British Captain James Cook thought New Caledonia's coast looked similar to Scotland's when he became the first known European to see it, in 1774. The native people of New Caledonia call themselves "Kanaks", and the biggest pro-independence organization has proposed renaming the new country Kanaky Nouvelle-Caledonie, perhaps translated into English as "Kanak New Caledonia". Other potential names that have been floated in the past are "Kanak Republic" or just "Kanaky".

Is the referendum expected to pass?

Unfortunately for independence activists, various opinion polls suggest that the NO vote will win and New Caledonia won't become independent (this time). But it's hard to say for sure, because many voters are still undecided, and you just never know what will really happen on election day. One poll actually found that 82% of New Caledonians are okay with the idea of eventual independence - it's just that many of them think it's not time yet. Meanwhile, 72% felt that having the vote was a good thing, even if they'll be voting NO.


Stay tuned to PolGeoNow to find out what happens next - more coverage of New Caledonia's referendum coming soon!


Graphics of New Caledonia's flags are in the public domain (source).