Updated: Dec 15, 2021
France "is more beautiful" with a Pacific island gracing its landscape, French President Emmanuel Macron said, delighted by New Caledonia's recent vote to stick with the European nation amid speculation of a possible political storm preceding the transition period.
With a huge segment of the territory's electorate boycotting Sunday's referendum, some cast doubt on the acceptability of the ballot result.
“A significant proportion of registered voters, mainly Kanak and pro-independence supporters chose to refrain from voting in support of their non-participation stance made known before the referendum, which should be taken into the contextual consideration and analysis of the result," the Pacific Islands Forum said in a statement.
New Caledonia's third independence referendum, mandated by the 1998 Noumea Accord, saw a low voter turnout, with only 43.87 percent of the 184,364 registered voters casting their ballot. Of those who voted, 96.5 percent voted "no" and only 3.5 percent voted "yes" on independence from France.
Compared to the narrow defeats in the two previous plebiscites in 2018 and 2020, Sunday's result dramatically changed the metrics of New Caledonia's political status.
"The spirit in which the referendum was conducted weighs heavily on the 1998 Noumea Accord and New Caledonia’s self-determination process," the Forum said. "Civic participation is an integral component of any democracy and critical to the interpretation and implications of Sunday’s poll."
New Caledonia's pro-independence parties are rejecting the validity of the third referendum, which was held despite their calls for its postponement citing the Covid-19 pandemic which they said restrained the campaign process.
Nathalie MrGudovic, a specialist on French overseas territories at Aston Univerity, noted the ambiguous characteristic of Sunday's poll.
"Its political legitimacy is affected, but legally, it is valid," MrGudovic said in an interview with France 24 TV.
But Sunday's referendum is not the final process of decision, she said.
In the next 18 months, the French loyalists and pro-independence camp will negotiate New Caledonia's new political status as an integral part of France.
In June 2023, New Caledonia will hold another referendum to decide whether or not to ratify the agreement that will be developed by the negotiating teams.
While the French loyalists may have rendered the vote France had hoped for, David Robie, associate editor of the Pacific Journalism Review, described it as "a hollow victory" considering the pro-independence Kanaks' rejection of the poll result.
"The referendum is likely to be seen as a failure, a capture of the vote by settlers without the meaningful participation of the Indigenous Kanak people," Robie wrote in The Conversation. "Pacific nations are unlikely to accept this disenfranchising of indigenous self-determination."
In France, presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon said the French government breached the Noumea Accord's consensus process by imposing a poll date that was not accepted by the pro-independence side.