Voters in the South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia are set to decide Sunday whether to break away from France, a referendum that is important for French geopolitical ambitions and is being closely watched amid growing Chinese influence in the region.
But pro-independence forces are refusing to take part, accusing the French government 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 provided for the “progressive, accompanied and irreversible transfer of powers from the French state to New Caledonia,” except in the areas of defense, public security, justice, foreign affairs and currency.
In the first such referendum in 2018, 43.6% of voters supported independence, and 46.7% favored it in a second vote held in 2020. While support for a “yes” vote seemed to be growing, the region’s first coronavirus outbreak 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, the archipelago had reported 271 COVID-19 deaths, 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 the vote should take place as scheduled on Dec. 12 to end uncertainty over New Caledonia’s future and to boost its economic prospects. After military medics were sent from the mainland, the virus situation stabilized, and the French government decided to stick to the planned 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.
The boycott has made for 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 the referendum goes beyond he future of Caledonians alone. France is trying to cement its presence in the Indo-Pacific region after it lost a multi-billion submarine contract because of a partnership Australia formed with the United States and the U.K. The secretly negotiated project, announced in September, was a huge blow to France.
Unlike in previous votes, this time “the question of New Caledonia’s strategic positioning is addressed. This novelty comes in the context of (the submarine partnership) and the assertion of Chinese-American rivalry in the Pacific,” University of New Caledonia law professor Caroline Gravelat said.
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 native Kanaks in 1957. Today, its population includes 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 with the referendum. The state, separatists and non-separatists would have 18 months to negotiate a new status for the territory and its institutions within France.