The Pacific Island French territory of New Caledonia held its third and final referendum over the weekend on whether it should become independent from France, a culmination of a 30-year peace process – but one side did not participate.
On Sunday morning, thousands of New Caledonian residents headed for the polls, but the pro-independence Socialist Kanak Liberation Front (FLNKS) told its supporters not to participate in the vote.
The pro-independence groups said their ability to campaign had been seriously impacted by COVID-19, with most of the territory’s 276 COVID deaths among the indigenous Kanak and other Pasifika communities.
“The health situation has not stabilised, and the risk of a second wave is still very present and tangible,” FLNKS said in a statement last month. “Today, the majority of people who have died from Covid are Pacific Islanders, most of them Kanaks.”
For Kanak people, mourning rites are extensive and can last up to 12 months and so the loss of so many from the community during the September outbreak has prevented them from preparing for the referendum.
The first two referendums, held in 2018 and 2020, delivered a slight majority for staying with France. There was, however, a growing Kanak support base for independence, rising from 43.3 percent in 2018 to 46.7 percent in 2020. Kanaks make up 40 percent of New Caledonia’s population. Kanak leaders had previously stated they believed they could win the third referendum.
But instead, after calling for a boycott — the referendum had 40 percent turn-out compared to 80 percent in the previous two referendums – 96.49 percent voted to remain part of France.
French President Emmanuel Macron said the result solidifies France’s hold over the territory.
“A period of transition is beginning. Free from the binary choice of yes or no, we must now build a common project, while recognising and respecting the dignity of everyone,” he said.
But former consul-general in New Caledonia and the author of “France in the South Pacific,” Denise Fisher, has warned that France’s decision not to delay the referendum risks letting the territory slip back into turmoil.
“The decision threatens France’s own 30-year peace process in the semi-autonomous territory, as well as stability in its preeminent Pacific possession. A boycott of the vote by the Indigenous Kanak population could potentially return the territory to the turmoil of the 1980s, with regional consequences,” she wrote in The Conversation.
Kanak leadership had asked France to delay the referendum as early as October, but Paris resisted and, fearing an outbreak of violence, sent 2,000 security personnel to the territory.
The pro-independence party Palika said the French decision to move ahead with the third referendum amounted to a declaration of war against the Kanaks.
An earlier referendum organized by France and boycotted by the FLNKS in 1987 spilled over into violence, with pro-independence members taking 27 French police officers, as well as other officials and military personnel, hostage. The crisis came to end only after a military assault in which 19 of the kidnappers and two of the rescuers were killed.
Delaying the third referendum had been supported by New Caledonia’s Pacific neighbors Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu.
A group of former Pacific Island presidents and prime ministers, known as the Pacific Elders’ Voice, also penned a letter to Macron earlier this month urging him “to respect the wishes of indigenous leaders in New Caledonia who have called for the deferral of the third independence referendum due to a spoke in Covid-related deaths.”
Other Kanak leaders left for New York earlier this week to take their concerns to the United Nations General Assembly.
For France, New Caledonia is at the center of its Indo-Pacific strategy. France’s overseas territories contribute 93 percent of France’s exclusive economic zone, making it the global number two maritime nation, after the United States. France also maintains around 8,000 troops in the region.
Despite New Caledonia’s importance to Paris, Kanak pro-independence groups have long argued that they have been treated as lesser citizens and suffer social and economic disadvantages, and thus seek independence.
With only 3 percent of Kanaks graduating from higher education compared to 23 percent of the rest of the population, the Kanak youth unemployment rate is still an alarming 38 percent – four times greater than for the rest of the population.
New Caledonia has been on the United Nations’ “decolonization” list since 1986. French Polynesia, another French territory in the Pacific, is also on the United Nations decolonization list.