The South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia decides Sunday whether to break away from France, in a vote that is important for French geopolitical ambitions and is closely watched amid growing Chinese influence in the region.
But pro-independence forces are refusing to take part, accusing the government in Paris of trying to rush through the vote.
The COVID-19 crisis complicated the campaign for the referendum, the third and last such vote foreseen as part of decades of decolonization efforts. The process is aimed at settling tensions between native Kanaks seeking independence and those who want the territory to remain part of France.
When polls open at 7 a.m. in New Caledonia – a vast archipelago east of Australia that is 10 time zones ahead of Paris – voters will be asked to vote yes or no on the question: “Do you want New Caledonia to achieve full sovereignty and become independent?”
The territory of 270,000 people won broad autonomy after violence in 1988 led to a political process known as the Noumea Agreement. The accord provides for the “progressive, accompanied and irreversible transfer of powers from the French state to New Caledonia” – except for powers over defense, security justice, foreign affairs and currency.
In the first such referendum in 2018, 43.6% of voters supported independence, and 46.7% supported it in the second vote in 2020. While support for a “yes” vote seemed to be growing, the region’s first outbreak of COVID-19 in September threw the political debate into disarray. Until then, New Caledonia had been one of the few virus-free places left on the planet.
By November, 271 deaths had been recorded and the regional Senate decreed a year of traditional Kanak mourning. Independence activists felt they couldn’t campaign out of respect for their dead, and demanded that the referendum be postponed.
But pro-France groups insisted that the date be maintained, to end uncertainty over the region’s future and boost its economic prospects. After military medics were sent from the mainland, the virus situation stabilized, and the central government decided to maintain the Dec. 12 date.
Pro-independence activists announced they would refuse to take part in the vote, accusing the government in Paris of imposing the referendum date and violating neutrality by publishing a document seen as casting the consequences of independence in a negative light.
That resulted in a strange campaign: empty billboards, no flags in the street, unusual calm.
“It is indeed difficult to prepare and play a match when the opponent announces that they will not come,” the pro-France Voices of “No” Collective said. But the group still called for a “massive vote turnout, so as not to be robbed of the result.”
What’s at stake in this referendum goes beyond he future of Caledonians alone.
Unlike in previous votes, this time “the question of New Caledonia’s strategic positioning is addressed. This novelty comes in the context of AUKUS (a submarine partnership involving Australia, the U.S. and U.K.) and the assertion of Chinese-American rivalry in the Pacific,” said Caroline Gravelat, public law professor at the University of New Caledonia.
France is trying to cement its presence in the region after the AUKUS deal was announced in September, scuttling an earlier French submarine contract with Australia. The secretly negotiated project was a huge blow to France, and especially to its ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.
New Caledonia hosts one of two French military bases in the Pacific, which allows France to contribute to regional security. It currently cooperates with the U.S., Australia and New Zealand on maritime surveillance, search and rescue at sea, ocean demining and the fight against illegal fishing.
The potential independence of New Caledonia “raises the question of the already very strong Chinese influence in Oceania, a major subject of concern for Western partners,” Gravelat said.
New Caledonia became French in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III — Napoleon’s nephew — and was used for decades as a prison colony. It became an overseas territory after World War II, with French citizenship granted to all Kanaks in 1957. Today its population includes native Kanaks and descendants of European colonizers, among others.
The U.N. has supported New Caledonia’s decolonization process, and sent electoral observers to monitor Sunday’s vote. The Pacific Islands Forum is also watching closely, and sent a delegation to observe the vote.
Even if the territory votes to stay French, the process started by the Noumea Agreement does not end immediately after the poll. The state, separatists and non-separatists would have 18 months to negotiate a new status for the territory and its institutions within France.