New Caledonia rejected independence. The separatists do not admit defeat

New Caledonia rejected independence. The separatists do not admit defeat

Igor Gashkov, Artur Gromov

In New Caledonia – special administrative-territorial formation of France in the Pacific Islands – December 12 heldthe third referendum on independence. Its outcome was known in advance: the pro-secession groups urged their supporters to stay at home. Against the background of the opposition boycott, the turnout was 43.88%, of which 96.49% were in favor of keeping the islands in the Fifth Republic. In 2020, and before that in 2018, two referendums on state independence have already taken place in New Caledonia, and they were held in an equal struggle. Opinion polls show that a sharp demarcation runs along ethnic lines: the community of indigenous people – the Kanaks – are in favor of secession, while the descendants of immigrants from the Old World are against. In 2021, the Kanak people felt the pandemic was robbing them of their chances of running a full-fledged election campaign and called for the postponement of the vote until 2022. Faced with rejection, the separatists boycotted the will, but they are unlikely to give up their goals in the future. Moreover, time is working for them: every year the white population of the islands is decreasing, and the indigenous population is increasing in number.

New Caledonia is one of the least prosperous territories in France. Despite this, the standard of living on the archipelago significantly exceeds the standards of neighboring, independent states of the Pacific Ocean. The reason for this is subsidies from the center and nickel deposits, which are rich in local shores. Earlier, Paris’s negotiations with the Kanak separatists ended with the recognition of the islanders’ right to express their opinion on state unity with France in referendums three times. The last of these votes ended on December 12th. French President Emmanuel Macron reacted to his outcome with the following words: “New Caledonia will remain French. <…> We must be led by the promise of a common destiny. <…> From now on, a transitional period begins,

Scottish roots, French possessions

The total area of New Caledonia is 19 thousand square meters. km, the main land part falls on the island of Grande-Terre (fr. “Big Land”). This territory was discovered in 1774 by the British traveler James Cook. He decided to name the island New Caledonia because he reminded him of Scotland, the homeland of his ancestors, which was historically called Caledonia.

Europeans – traders and missionaries – began to actively populate New Caledonia in the 1840s. In 1853 it was declared a French colony. From the 1860s to the end of the 19th century, the French authorities exiled criminals there (a total of 22 thousand people), while the aboriginal population was actually herded into the reservation. Initially, coffee and coconut palms were cultivated on the island, then mineral resources, in particular nickel, began to be mined.

The Kanaks, the indigenous tribes of Melanesia who have lived in New Caledonia for centuries, have repeatedly rebelled against the white population (the largest partisan wars took place in 1878 and 1917). Smallpox and measles came to the island along with the Europeans, the victims of which were thousands of natives.

In 1946, New Caledonia became an overseas territory of France, seven years later, all the inhabitants of the island received French citizenship, regardless of whether they were Europeans or representatives of indigenous peoples. According to the UN classification, New Caledonia is a Non-Self-Governing Territory, that is, a place where the decolonization process has not yet been completed.

From martial law to referendum

For many years, acute interethnic tensions and serious social and economic difficulties persisted in New Caledonia, against the background of which separatist sentiments grew.

In the 1980s, the situation on the overseas territory became especially aggravated and actually passed into the stage of an armed conflict between supporters and opponents of the archipelago’s independence from France. In 1985, the government of the republic was forced to introduce a state of emergency in the region – such a measure was used by the French authorities for the first time since the war in Algeria (1954-1962).

Civil peace in New Caledonia was restored in 1988, when the Matignon Accords were concluded in Paris, resulting from trilateral negotiations between the French government, loyalists and separatists. The agreement was approved in the same year by a national referendum. Under this document, Caledonia was temporarily granted special administrative status pending a referendum on self-determination scheduled for 1998.

However, when the appointed time came, the French government postponed the promised plebiscite to a later date. This was provided for by the Noumea Agreement, signed in the Caledonian capital (Noumea) and approved in the same year by the French in a national referendum.

The document established the procedure for the gradual transfer of complete control over all spheres of life in the archipelago to the local administration. The exception was the issues of defense, justice, internal security and currency emission, which remain under the jurisdiction of Paris. A referendum on self-determination for New Caledonia, according to this treaty, had to be held “no later than 2018”.

How New Caledonia Voted Before

In 2014, President François Hollande visited the islands and confirmed that a referendum would take place, and that Paris would respectfully accept any decision of local residents. The position of the Elysee Palace has not changed after the change of power. The new French President Emmanuel Macron confirmed the right of the New Caledonians to decide their own destiny, and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced on November 3, 2017  that the parties had reached a final agreement to hold a vote in 2018.

In the early spring of 2018, the local parliament, the Congress of New Caledonia, approved the exact date: scheduled a referendum for November 4 of the same year.

When the election campaign had already begun, in May 2018, Macron himself arrived on the islands. In front of the locals, he made a symbolic gesture – he handed over the material symbols of colonial rule to the government of New Caledonia: acts of taking possession of the territory of September 24 and 29, 1853, signed by Emperor Napoleon III, an enthusiast of territorial conquests, by whose will the French were entrenched in the Pacific Ocean. According to Macron, the transfer of these documents was to symbolize a change in attitudes towards New Caledonia: “The time of ownership is over, and now is the time for choice and collective decisions.”

The vote, which took place on time, highlighted the division of the local community. With a high turnout of 81%, only 56% voted in favor of staying in the Fifth Republic. The overwhelming majority of the Kanaks, the descendants of the conquered aborigines, remained supporters of independence. True, they cannot decide the fate of their homeland alone – the autochthonous population is slightly less than 40% of its inhabitants. The Kanaks need to convince the descendants of white settlers or those who have moved from other parts of the world, which is difficult. But they themselves are reluctant to join the loyalists. The situation is becoming more and more impasse.

The second  independence referendum was held on October 4, 2020  . Against the background of a record high turnout ( 85.6% of the  inhabitants of the archipelago came to the ballot boxes  ), the supporters of unity with Paris won: 53.2% versus 46.8%. The outcome of the second referendum elicited relief in the hallways of the Elysee Palace. President Emmanuel Macron expressed his gratitude to the islanders. “The voters had their say. They confirmed their desire to leave New Caledonia as part of France. As head of state, I welcome this as an expression of confidence in the republic with a sense of the deepest gratitude,”   Macron addressed the nation .

The inability to achieve a convincing victory forced Paris to continue negotiations with the separatists, especially since they still had the last trump card in their hands – the right to three referendums. Once it has been deployed, the Kanaks, the supporters of independence, have no legal way to continue the struggle. But whether this means the end of the protests or their new unpredictable round (every year the white population of the archipelago is reduced by several thousand people, and the indigenous one is growing), only time will tell.

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