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  • By Denise Fisher/The Interpreter

New Caledonia: the independence vote looms

One month out from New Caledonia’s Nov. 4 independence referendum, the French State has announced a number of steps it has taken to ensure a credible and peaceful process. The campaign is generally proceeding smoothly, although tensions around a boycott call and an ongoing mining blockade by young Kanaks have been compounded by a shooting incident on 2 October in the troubled St Louis area near Noumea.

On Oct. 4, France’s High Commissioner publicly reviewed its provision of increased security personnel for the referendum period, and announced a ban – for the weekend of the vote – on the sale of alcohol and carrying weapons, including those used for hunting.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe also issued a communique on the implications of the vote, clearly aiming at impartiality, predictability and credibility, and emphasizing dialogue.

There is an inherent tension between France’s role as organizer and interested sovereign power.

The legal procedures for preparing for the vote require the French State to provide information on both the pro-independence and pro-France positions. The task was a delicate one, given the sensitivity of the voting process ending compromises that have ensured 30 years of peace and stability. There is also an inherent tension between France’s role as organizer and interested sovereign power, and wide differences between certain parties. Yet France’s stated desire is to ensure the vote will be accepted as legitimate, in New Caledonia, in the region, and beyond.

The document is as neutral as such a document can be, confining itself to the practical role of the French State in the event of either a “yes” or “no” outcome on 4 November on the question: “Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?”

The communiqué indicates early that France is organizing the vote “in the strictest neutrality” and that it “will not campaign”. It underlines the role of dialogue and negotiation after the vote, and refers to recent consultative documents, notably the 2014 canvassing of four optionsfor the future, and the 2016 Christnacht mission report on the institutional future.

It then sets out the practical consequences for the French State of a “yes” answer to independence. In this case, it notes that New Caledonia would acquire all sovereign responsibilities, an international status of full responsibility, and the organisation of its citizenship into a nationality. This neatly finesses the fact that the Noumea Accord requires that the vote focus on these three points, whereas the agreed question is a simple binary one.

Noting these things “would not come into effect the day after the vote”, France would continue to provide security, law and order, the currency, and justice for a “limited period of transition”. Discussions between the French State and local authorities would set a calendar and modalities for the transfer of all responsibilities. At an agreed date the new state would unilaterally declare independence and establish diplomatic relations with other states and seek a seat in the United Nations. (This formulation suggests that, at least for France, a “no” result may rule out a UN seat for a non-independent New Caledonia.)

While the document states that the current mechanisms for France to finance New Caledonia would legally cease, it does foreshadow continued French support through development cooperation. France would also determine whether certain residents of an independent New Caledonia might retain French nationality.

In the event of a “no” vote to independence, the document declares that New Caledonia would remain a French “collectivity,” with France supporting it in its relations with regional governments. The people would retain French nationality and French and European citizenship. Provincial elections would be held in May 2019 “on the same basis as in May 2014”, making clear that the controversial restricted electorate applying to provincial elections under the Noumea Accord would continue.

As for so-called Article 27 powers of broadcast media, tertiary education and municipal administration, powers which the local Congress could have assumed but so far has failed to agree on, France would retain these “until the Congress seeks their transfer”. This leaves the way open for these transfers to take place, when in theory with the end of the Noumea Accord, France could simply keep them.

The statement spells out Noumea Accord provisions for a second referendum within two years in the event of a “no” to independence if one third of the local Congress agrees, and a third on the same basis (i.e. by 2022) if the second vote also results in a “no”.

The statement notes that while the Noumea Accord provides for discussions between the French State and local partners after any third “no” vote in 2022, France will assemble local political leaders for discussions after November’s vote whatever the result. It concludes by noting that there is no other way than dialogue to guarantee the future of New Caledonia unfolds in peace.

The communique is impressively measured and balanced, setting a useful tone for the last weeks of the referendum campaign.

Denise Fisher is a Visiting Fellow at ANU's Centre for European Studies. Denise was an Australian diplomat for thirty years, serving in Australian diplomatic missions as a political and economic policy analyst in Rangoon, Nairobi, New Delhi, Kuala Lumpur and Washington DC before being appointed Australian High Commissioner in Harare (1998-2001), accredited to Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Angola and Malawi; then Australian Consul-General in Noumea, New Caledonia (2001-2004). She is the author of France in the South Pacific: Power and Politics (2013). This article was published in The Interpreter.

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