Friday, December 17, 2021

Referendum 3 of 3: New Caledonia Won't Become Independent

Parts of this article are adapted from our 2020 New Caledonia referendum explainer, but have been revised and updated for the latest vote.

The islands of New Caledonia, and their location in the South Pacific. Map by NormanEinstein (CC BY-SA; source)
The South Pacific islands of New Caledonia voted again last weekend on whether to become independent from France, in the last of a series of three referendums. As in 2018, and again last year, the anti-independence side has won the majority of the votes.

But this time was much different. In 2018, 43% of voters chose the independence option, and in 2020 that proportion grew to 47%. But last weekend, amid calls for a boycott from pro-independence campaigners, a only a staggeringly-small 3.5% of participants voted to separate from France. Total voter turnout was barely half the amount from last year.

Why did this happen, and what now? Read on for the answers.

Why did New Caledonia voters boycott the referendum?

A few months ago, it looked like this year's referendum might be a tossup between the pro-independence and anti-independence votes, but everything changed in September. Until recently, New Caledonia had mostly escaped the global COVID-19 pandemic - but then, in September, it was finally hit by a major outbreak. Independence proponents pushed vigorously for the vote to be postponed, but their opponents and the French government refused. And even though the wave of infections turned to out to have mostly passed by the referendum date, indigenous independence supporters said they couldn't campaign because of mourning requirements for the hundreds of dead.

What's next for New Caledonia?

In theory, the question of independence would have been settled for the long term after this last referendum - but with so much of the population angry about what happened, many feel the debate is anything but resolved. New Caledonia's pro-independence coalition has outright rejected the referendum result, and the Melanesian Spearhead Group, which includes several independent countries in the area, has also called the results illegitimate. Another regional group of countries, the Pacific Islands Forum, has accepted the results but called for the boycott to be taken into account going forward.

That, at least, might be politically realistic: Since New Caledonia's current status was intended as a temporary arrangement until the referendums were held, the French government is already obligated to renegotiate the islands' self-governance system over the next year and a half. Full independence, though, looks to be off the table for the foreseeable future.

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
Sui generis ("one of a kind") special collectivity of France
• Overseas country/territory of the European Union

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

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 many overseas regions like French Guiana, Guadeloupe, or Mayotte - New Caledonia has its own legislature, citizenship, and flag. Though the French central government in Paris is still in charge of New Caledonia's defense and border control (among a few other things), the islands have the right to make their own laws for most internal purposes.

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

Would New Caledonia have become independent if the YES vote won?

Unlike the controversial referendums in Kurdistan and Catalonia four years ago - which were held in defiance of the governments they were voting on breaking away from - France had agreed to accept the results of New Caledonia's referendum, much like how the UK agreed to Scotland's 2014 independence vote.

That means that if the people had voted YES on independence, New Caledonia would have really become the world's newest recognized, independent country - the first since South Sudan gained independence in 2011. With France's guaranteed approval, an independent New Caledonia would almost certainly have been allowed into the United Nations (UN) and been accepted by all the world's countries.

For more details on what was expected to happen if New Caledonia voted for independence, check out our explainer article for the 2020 referendum.

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 had proposed renaming the new country Kanaky Nouvelle-Caledonie, perhaps translated into English as "Kanak New Caledonia". Other potential names floated in the past include "Kanak Republic" and the native name of the region, "Kanaky".

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