NEW CALEDONIA’S CHOICE. A HISTORICAL AND GEOPOLITICAL OVERVIEW OF FRANCE’S FORMER COLONY INDEPENDENCE REFERENDA

This article aims at analyzing the history of New Caledonia, highlighting its colonial past, its current status as a French overseas territory, the fight for autonomy brought forward by native Kanaks and the geopolitical implications that New Caledonia’s independence would imply.

A tropical archipelago in the South Pacific

New Caledonia is an island archipelago located in the South Pacific about 1210 kilometers off the coasts of Queensland, and to the southeast of the island nation of Vanuatu. The tropical archipelago consists of one larger island, Grande Terre, and a collection of smaller ones, including the Loyalty Islands to the east and the Isle of Pines to the south. Grande Terre, a mountainous 400 km-long strip of land extending along the northwest to southeast axis, represents 88% of New Caledonia’s landmass, and reunites most of its population. Noumea, New Caledonia’s capital and largest city, is located on Grande Terre’s southwestern shore.

A satellite image of Grande Terre (Wikimedia).

New Caledonia’s colonial past

The islands’ natives are the Kanak people, descendants of the Melanesian peoples who settled the archipelago 5,000 years ago. The Loyalty Islands, instead, are inhabited by Polynesian peoples. After practically remaining cut off from the rest of the world until the late 18th century, the archipelago was discovered in 1774 by British navigator and explorer James Cook, who named the island New Caledonia after his father’s native Scotland (Caledonia being the Latin name for Scotland). In the upcoming years, the British and French contended the archipelago, setting up Protestant and Catholic missions to convert the local population until 1853, when the French took possession of New Caledonia starting a penal colony. The relationship between the French and the native people was confrontational: the Kanaks were subjugated in a system that involved forced labor, travel restrictions and curfews, with uprisings harshly suppressed. Meanwhile, between 1864 and 1897 the islands witnessed the arrival of 22,000 French convicts, including about 4,000 political exiles from the Paris Commune, as well as some free settlers. Moreover, between 1864 and 1939 approximately 60,000 indentured laborers, mainly from the South Pacific and South-East Asia, were brought to work in plantations, shipbuilding, construction and mines. However, few of them remained in New Caledonia after their contracts expired.

A 1902 map of New Caledonia (Atlas des colonies françaises par Paul Pelet).

New ethnic balances

Despite the French administration’s attempts to draw additional white free settlers to the island in the 1890s and 1920s, it was not until after the Second World War that the European population saw a substantial increase. In the period leading up to the nickel boom of 1969-1972, a greater influx of whites and Polynesians altered ethnic balances, resulting in the native Kanak people no longer comprising the majority of New Caledonia’s population, although remaining the single largest ethnic group.

Ethnic distribution of Kanaks and Europeans according to the 2014 census (Wikimedia).

The Kanak’s fight for independence

The post-war years also witnessed the extension of political rights, with all New Caledonians, regardless of their ethnicity, being granted French citizenship by 1953. This was followed by significant steps toward self-governance, including the setup of a Territorial Assembly with the power to elect an executive under the presidency of a High Commissioner in 1957. In the following years, a coalition between Europeans and Melanesians brought to power the Caledonian Union party. Nevertheless, the party increasingly lost European support in the 1970s, becoming a predominantly Melanesian party and shifting its focus toward the pursuit of full independence from France. When the French government granted complete self-government in territorial affairs under the Lemoine Statute of 1984, the Independence Front, a new coalition uniting the Caledonian Union and other Melanesian minority parties, rejected the statute and reconstituted itself as the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale Kanake et Socialiste; FLNKS). The FLNKS boycotted the 1984 elections and, in an uprising, temporarily captured most of the territory outside the capital Noumea. The following years were marked by violent clashes between the FLNKS and the settler-dominated Rally for Caledonia in the Republic (Rassemblement pour la Calédonie dans la République; RPCR), which advocated for maintaining ties with France.

The Matignon and Noumea Accords

The Matignon Accord of 1988, negotiated by the FLNKS and the French government, marked a turning point, restructuring political and advisory bodies and granting even wider-reaching autonomy to the former French colony. A decade later, the 1998 Noumea Accord, approved by a local referendum, stipulated the change in status of the archipelago from oversea territory to overseas collectivity sui generis, and that up to three referenda on independence could be held, with these to be postponed for 15 years.

France’s stake

Despite efforts to find a middle ground, the New Caledonian independence movement continues to face significant resistance from the French state. There are four main reasons why this is the case. First, the loss of a former colonial territory would have strong symbolic and reputational consequences, especially considering that, as mentioned earlier, the collectivity is home to a large community of French descent (the Caldoches) and of more recent expats from Metropolitan France (the Zoreilles). According to the 2019 census, these groups jointly account for 24.1% of the total population, or roughly 65,000 people, mostly concentrated in the capital and its suburbs. 

Second, France, historically adhering to a policy of centralization and integration with many of its older colonies, albeit with varying degrees of local autonomy, fears that granting independence to New Caledonia might encourage other French overseas territories to seek the same. Indeed, the question of independence also plays a major role in the relationship with Paris in French Polynesia and French Guiana, though much less vehemently than in New Caledonia.

Third, France has a major strategic interest in the New Caledonian archipelago. New Caledonia is in fact home to 25% of the world’s nickel reserves and is the world’s fourth-largest extractor of this metal, crucial for the manufacturing of batteries for mobile phones and electric cars. If the territory were to gain independence, France would lose its influence on a commodity of growing interest, especially to China, and that is expected to become increasingly scarce in the future. Lastly, from a geo-strategic point of view, New Caledonia represents, along with French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna, one of the last locations in the Pacific where France can maintain its military and political influence. Following the recent withdrawal of Australia from a major deal on the sale of French submarines, New Caledonia’s independence would pose another setback to France’s interests in this region.

French EEZ borders (in green). New Caledonia is at the center of the picture (Wikimedia).

An independent New Caledonia: the next to fall under China’s influence?

More specifically, experts point out that by choosing to sever its long-standing historic relationship with France, which to this day pours in the archipelago an amount equivalent to 18% of the collectivity GDP to fund its chronic public deficit and subsidized mining industry, New Caledonia would opt for further integration in its regional environment but would also risk falling into the arms of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PRC is already the first export partner of the archipelago (trade exports to China are 57% of total exports from New Caledonia, increased from 10% in 2010). Moreover, the very same independence supporters have not failed to disdain the possibility of closer ties with China were they to achieve independence. For instance, New Caledonian independence leader Roch Wamytan declared in October 2020: “We are not afraid of China. It was France, not China, that colonized us. [China] doesn’t bother us too much. […] We are not looking only to Europe as it is far from here, we are not going to act today as if China does not exist.

China would not stay indifferent

China’s interests in the South Pacific are tied to the country’s geopolitical strategy to accrue its influence in the region by enhancing the recognition of its maritime claims in the South China Sea and isolating the last few Pacific island states that still recognize Taiwan (Palau, the Marshall Islands, Nauru and Tuvalu remain loyal to Taipei while Kiribati and the Solomon Islands recently switched allegiances to Beijing in 2019). Secondly, these interests are also driven by China’s aim to obtain better access to natural resources essential for its economy. Within the framework of the US “pivot to Asia” Canberra and Washington are already on a collision course with the PRC’s goal to increase its influence in the region, with the South Pacific turning into a relevant first line of attrition of the 21st-century geopolitical battlefield. An independent New Caledonia would give China just the perfect opportunity to further expand its influence, compelling the Western Alliance (US, France, Australia, UK) to establish a new political and economic frontline in a struggle over the region.

Alternative scenarios

Other observers, though, tend to consider the risk that an independent New Caledonia would fall into China’s arms as fairly limited. After Vale of Brazil’s sale of Goro, New Caledonia’s largest nickel mine, to a consortium composed of mine employees, the collectivity’s three regional provinces and the Singapore commodity trading group Trafigura in 2021, the US electric car maker Tesla has become Goro’s “technical and industrial partner.” In particular, Tesla has agreed to purchase 42,000 tons of nickel a year in a multiyear deal, thereby effectively reducing China’s potential importance as a customer and trade partner. While the arrangement with Tesla will thus surely dilute the dependence of New Caledonia’s nickel industry on China, it does not guarantee that in case of independence, due to the halt in the inflow of funds from Paris, the new government would not contract loans with the PCR, creating another form of financial dependence. However, what is certain is that other regional powers would not stay still. Pushed by the threat of a Chinese-influenced New Caledonia, both Australia and New Zealand have strong interests in increasing their ties with the archipelago were it to gain formal independence.

Mining camp at Goro, New Caledonia’s largest nickel mine (Wikimedia).

The referenda: what next?

The first independence referendum was held on November 4, 2018, and resulted in about 56% of voters rejecting independence, a much narrower margin of victory than had been expected, thus sparking the hopes of pro-independence supporters. The second referendum, held on October 4, 2020, also resulted in the rejection of independence, although by a slightly smaller margin: only 53% of voters opted for the collectivity to remain a part of France. The third and final referendum under the Noumea Accord was scheduled for December 12, 2021. The date of the vote was highly controversial: pro-independence groups favored the vote to be held in 2022, while French loyalists supported the 2021 date. In September 2021, additional concerns regarding the scheduled referendum date emerged after a surge in the number of COVID-19 cases and resultant deaths in the archipelago, which disproportionately affected the largely pro-independence indigenous Kanak population, with referendum campaigning opportunities also being adversely impacted by Kanak mourning customs. When calls by the pro-independence groups to postpone the referendum due to the aforementioned issues were rejected, they decided to boycott the vote, which took place as planned on December 12. As a consequence, the outcome was that approximately 96% of voters rejected independence. Nevertheless, with a 44% turnout figure – almost half of that of the previous two referenda – the vote risks being overshadowed by doubts on its ultimate legitimacy, and being the trigger to a renewed period of tension and violence in New Caledonia. In this context, French president Emmanuel Macron’s 2023 visit to the archipelago was meant to affirm France’s ownership of New Caledonia, and to set motion to the political stalemate that started after the last referendum.  “We find ourselves in a kind of suspended state,” he stated, referring to the current situation nobody had been planning for. “We are collectively faced with an immense responsibility.”

The 2018 referendum bulletin (Wikimedia).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Britannica, 2022. New Caledonia. [online] Available at https://www.britannica.com/place/New-Caledonia-French-unique-collectivity-Pacific-Ocean/History

Castillon, G., 2021. New Caledonia’s Destiny And Its Geopolitical Implications For The Asia Pacific Region on iGlobe News. [online] Available at https://www.iglobenews.org/new-caledonias-destiny-and-its-geopolitical-implications-for-the-asia-pacific-region

Field, M., 2021. China Looms Over New Caledonia Vote On Independece From France on Nikkei Asia. [online] Available at https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Asia-Insight/China-looms-over-New-Caledonia-vote-on-independence-from-France

Monterotti, E., 2022. La Nuova Caledonia rimane francese, ma il suo futuro è ancora incerto on Lo Spiegone. [online] Available at https://lospiegone.com/2022/01/09/la-nuova-caledonia-rimane-francese-ma-il-suo-futuro-e-ancora-incerto/

AFP, 2023. Macron urges ‘sincere’ talks over New Caledonia independence dispute on France24. [online] Available at https://www.france24.com/en/asia-pacific/20230726-macron-urges-sincere-talks-over-new-caledonia-independence-dispute

Tommaso Roviera

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