New Caledonia Rejects Independence from France in Low-Turnout Referendum

New Caledonians vote on independence for a third and final time . . . 

On Sunday, citizens in the territory of New Caledonia, off the eastern coast of Australia, voted for the third and final time on becoming fully sovereign and independent from France, with 96.5 per cent voting against independence and only 3.5 per cent voting in favour. In the first two referenda, in 2018 and 2020, 43 per cent and 47 per cent, respectively, voted in favour of independence. Notably, however, close to 60 per cent of voters in the most recent referendum either abstained from voting or cancelled their ballot. Pro-independence and Indigenous groups had called for a boycott of the vote after France refused to delay the referendum until next year, following a mourning period for the Indigenous victims of COVID-19.

France's continued interest . . .

The island of 290,000 people became a French overseas territory in 1946. Through the Nouméa Accord, signed in 1998, New Caledonians won additional political powers and more independence from France. The accord also committed to the “progressive, accompanied and irreversible transfer of powers from the French state to New Caledonia” and allowed three referenda to be held on full independence. New Caledonia’s soil is rich in minerals and it hosts one of France’s two military bases in the Pacific, making the territory particularly important to France’s Indo-Pacific stance and strategy. The weekend referendum was also being closely watched amid growing concerns over China’s influence in the region.

What’s next?

Sunday’s referendum is being contested by pro-independence and Indigenous groups. It could also re-ignite tensions between the pro-independence Indigenous Kanak people and the Europeans on the island opposing independence, as there was no meaningful participation by the Kanak people. For example, the Pacific Islands Forum, the 18-member political and economic policy organization in Oceania, of which New Caledonia is a member, highlighted in a statement the low turnout and raised concerns about “New Caledonia’s self-determination process.” The French government was, however, quick to recognize the result and called for both sides to find a way forward. New Caledonia now faces an uncertain political future. With the third referendum on independence complete, at least in the eyes of France, New Caledonia will enter an 18-month transition period as laid out in the Nouméa Accord to develop a new statute for the island territory within France.