Final independence referendum to be held in France’s New Caledonia

Reuters file photo
French President Emmanuel Macron attends a meeting with New Caledonia representatives to discuss the consequences of the forthcoming referendum on New Caledonia self-determination and its date, at the Elysee Palace in Paris on June 1.

JAKARTA / PARIS — The French territory of New Caledonia in the South Pacific will hold a third and final referendum on independence on Sunday. If a majority vote in favor of independence, New Caledonia will become an independent nation after a transition period. Paris is becoming increasingly concerned about the possibility of independence as China, which is expanding its presence in the South Pacific, could increase its influence over the islands.

New Caledonia was declared a colony by France in 1853. It now has large degree of autonomy including the right to formulate its own budget in its own parliament, but its judicial and diplomatic functions are under the jurisdiction of the French government. The population of 280,000 has French nationality. Tourism and nickel production are the main industries.

In 1998, the French government decided to hold an independence referendum in New Caledonia after the indigenous Kanak people demanded independence in protest against the economic disparity between them and European immigrants. It was decided that the referendums would be held up to three times, and the first two referendums went in favor of remaining as a French territory.

However the gap between the pro-independence and pro-French camps is narrowing. In the first referendum, held in 2018, the pro-French camp won 56% of the votes, but it got 53% in the 2020 second referendum. The pro-independence camp is said to be gaining momentum, with some observers saying it could win a majority.

The deadline for the third referendum was October 2022, but the French government decided to hold it about 10 months before that. The pro-independence group asked for a postponement, citing the spread of the novel coronavirus, but it was not accepted.

Pro-independence lawmaker Pierre-Chanel Tutugoro expressed discontent to The Yomiuri Shimbun, saying: “This date was set unilaterally. I can only regret this announcement.”

Paris is taking a neutral stance on the surface, but in reality, it hopes New Caledonia will remain a French territory. President Emmanuel Macron expressed his deep gratitude when the pro-France camp took the majority in the second referendum in October 2020. The French government’s insistence on an early third referendum is seen as a strategy to secure a majority while the pro-independence camp struggles to expand its support amid the coronavirus pandemic.

For France, New Caledonia is a cornerstone of its strategy in the Indo-Pacific region. It stations naval ships and aircraft there to protect its territory and monitor its exclusive economic zones. If New Caledonia becomes independent, Paris will lose important military foothold and interests in the Pacific.

China is said to be interested in New Caledonia’s rich reserves of nickel, a metal that is essential for products such as rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles. Alexandre Dayant of the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, said: “If New Caledonia becomes independent, you can be sure that [China is] going to try to enhance its commercial relationship with New Caledonia. It might also try to expand its diplomatic relationship and try to have a new diplomatic ally in the Pacific.”

According to French media and other sources, the pro-independence camp is opposed to the French government’s rush to hold the third referendum, and there is a move to boycott the vote. Even if the majority votes to remain, the pro-independence camp is said to be planning not to accept the result and continue its struggle for independence through means such as appealing at the United Nations and other forums.