Saturday, October 3, 2020

New Caledonia Voting on Independence from France: Round Two

Update: For the results of the election, check out our follow up article!

This is an updated version of an article published in November 2018 for that year's independence referendum. It has been revised to address the October 2020 vote, which is a direct follow-up to the one two years ago.

The islands of New Caledonia, and their location in the South Pacific. Map by NormanEinstein (CC BY-SA; source)
Today the South Pacific islands of New Caledonia will vote - again - on whether to declare independence, after a 2018 vote supported remaining part of France.

This referendum and the previous one are the culmination of a 20-year process set in motion by the Nouméa Accord of 1998, when the French government agreed to gradually transfer power to the islands' own institutions.

See Also: Results of the 2018 New Caledonia Independence Vote

New Caledonia is one of two places in the Melanesia region to vote on independence lately, after Bougainville chose independence from Papua New Guinea last December (though it's still uncertain if Bougainville will really become independent).

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

Though it's on the other side of the globe 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 plus the European Union's parliament, and can vote for the president of France.

However, New Caledonia has more autonomy (self-governance) than any other part of France. Unlike the parts of France in Europe - or 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 central government in Paris is still in charge of New Caledonia's defense and border control, among a few other things.

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
Current 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 2018 explainer from

What exactly is New Caledonia's referendum question?

The question on today's referendum ballots is exactly the same as in 2018. 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 three years 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 one of the world's newest recognized, independent countries - possibly the first since South Sudan gained independence in 2011, though Bougainville could still slip in ahead of it. Independent New Caledonia would almost certainly be accepted into the United Nations (UN) and be accepted by all the world's countries.

In fact, France has taken an even friendlier stance towards New Caledonia's referendums than the UK did towards Scotland's fully-legal independence vote in 2014. Unlike that one, where the London government campaigned against independence, the French government has promised to stay "strictly neutral" in New Caledonia's vote. That said, pro-independence parties have accused Paris of being less neutral this time than in 2018, and others complain that it's not doing as good a job of constructively contributing to the process, as it struggles with the coronavirus pandemic in Europe.

New Caledonia wouldn't declare official independence immediately after the referendum, even if the YES vote wins. The French government has committed to establishing a set period of transition if that happens, with New Caledonia declaring independence (and Paris discharging it from France) after all government powers have been gradually transferred to the islands. New Caledonia's major pro-independence group says it wants that period to last three years, meaning the declaration of independence would likely happen in late 2023.

Some of the islanders would probably get to keep their French citizenship, but that would depend on the details of a future law to be passed in Paris. Meanwhile, domestic funding from the French government would end, and after that New Caledonia would have to request international aid if it wants financial help.

Declaring independence would probably mean permanently downgrading ties to the European Union, since only "European countries" are allowed to join the EU on their own. Currently New Caledonia is one of the "Overseas Countries and Territories" of the EU, which means it's not officially part of the union but does have some special trade privileges.

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. And of course there's the 2018 vote, where 43% voted for independence according to the final results.

If this one doesn't pass either, there will likely be one more vote in 2022, as allowed by the Nouméa Accord as long as one-third of New Caledonia's legislature calls for it. 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 and his crew became the first known Europeans 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 the native name of the region, "Kanaky".

Is the referendum expected to pass?

Winning enough support for independence has been an uphill battle for its supporters, since many residents of New Caledonia (including many locals of European descent) either hold patriotic ties to France or worry the islands would become poorer without France's support. Because of this, analysts consider a YES-majority vote to still be unlikely this time around.

On the other hand, the pro-independence camp has some reason to be optimistic. Much fewer people voted NO in 2018 than had been predicted by opinion polling, and though no new opinion polls have been published since, the results of that referendum suggested independence might be within reach. Today independence campaigners are hoping to gain an edge by increasing voter turnout from outlying islands that tend to be pro-independence, partly with the help of a small pro-independence political party that boycotted last time but now supports voting in 2020.

Of course, anti-independence groups are also hoping to increase their turnout, especially from the more urban south, and it's impossible to say for sure what will happen. But we won't have to wait very long to find out, with preliminary results expected by midnight local time.

Stay tuned to PolGeoNow to find out what happens next - coverage of New Caledonia's 2020 referendum results coming soon!

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