New Zealand must urge France to rethink its stance on New Caledonia’s Independence Referendum, argues Dr Adrian Muckle

The determination of French President Emmanuel Macron’s government to proceed with the December 12 referendum on self-determination in New Caledonia—against the wishes of New Caledonia’s pro-independence parties and despite growing regional concern—is a moral and political failure that threatens to jeopardise more than 30 years’ work towards peaceful decolonisation.

Put simply, the plan to proceed with a referendum, in which the leading independence parties refuse to participate, can only undermine the path towards peaceful decolonisation in one of Aotearoa’s nearest neighbours.

The referendum is the third and last provided for under the terms of the 1998 Noumea Accord. That political agreement was a successor to the 1988 Matignon Accords, which ended a period of intense violence bordering on civil war between supporters and opponents of independence (including the French state) from 1984 to 1988.

Both accords brought New Caledonia back from the brink of greater violence by ensuring a path towards peaceful decolonisation. That path has included recognition of the identity of Kanak as New Caledonia’s indigenous people.

It also included initiatives to address social and economic disparities, as well as establishing a Kanak Customary Senate and, importantly, the gradual and irreversible transfer of key powers from France to New Caledonia’s own political institutions.

While there have been many stumbling blocks and much remains to be achieved, the process overall has been a success—until now.

The Noumea Accord provides for up to three referendums on self-determination. The first in 2018 and the second in 2020 were both won by “loyalists”. However, they showed higher than anticipated and even growing support for independence, which climbed from 43.3 percent in 2018 to 46.7 percent in 2020.

Both had high rates of participation from the eligible electorate (85 percent in 2020), and high levels of confidence in the process and conditions under which campaigning took place.

For this confidence to be maintained, the final referendum needs to be held under the same if not better conditions. Unfortunately, it appears this will not be the case.

Since September 6, New Caledonia has been dealing with the impact of the Delta strain of Covid-19. This has resulted in nearly 12,000 cases and 276 deaths in less than three months, in a population of some 270,000.

Indigenous Kanak and New Caledonia’s other Pacific communities have been disproportionately affected. The Kanak Customary Senate has declared a 12-month period of mourning. In late November, only 72 percent of the eligible population was fully vaccinated.

On top of that, trust in the referendum process is being undermined by concern about its increasing politicisation in the build-up to France’s presidential elections in April 2022.

The December 12 referendum date has been chosen by the French government despite this concern and despite a previous undertaking it would avoid such a situation. It has been suggested the decision was politically calculated: that showing the government has secured New Caledonia’s future with France would help it stave off its far-right rivals at home. If so, that would signal a further step away from neutrality by Macron’s government.

As the voice of France’s far-right grows and as New Caledonia’s own “loyalist” political parties call stridently for the decolonisation process to end, it’s clear it is no longer possible to conduct the referendum under the conditions required.

Just as importantly, France’s current plans for post-referendum dialogue on New Caledonia’s future political arrangements will be undermined.

Supported by the Kanak Customary Senate, New Caledonia’s independence parties are asking for the referendum to be postponed until late 2022 and are calling on their supporters not to participate if the referendum proceeds on December 12. They are also seeking support from the French public and from the Pacific region. New Zealand too must lend its weight.

To date, there have been expressions of concern at the UN from Papua New Guinea on behalf of the Melanesian Spearhead group (which includes PNG, Solomons Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia’s independentist front, the FLNKS). More recently, the call for a postponement has been supported by Vanuatu. A group of respected Pacific island leaders, the “Pacific Elders”, also has lent its voice.

In France, the referendum’s timing has been denounced by a growing range of political experts. On November 23, more than 60 academics with specialist expertise on New Caledonia from Europe, Australia, North America and New Zealand (including this author) signed a “tribune” (open letter) in Le Monde, calling on the French government to respect the mourning period and to postpone the referendum.

What is New Zealand doing? Questioned at a press conference in Australia this month, Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta replied the situation was a matter for French and New Caledonian authorities, but that “New Zealand has a proud history of self‑determination and would encourage full participation in the democratic processes to be able to influence outcomes”.

This statement is simply not adequate given the extent to which these processes are being undermined. Confidence in the decolonisation pathway needs to be restored.

Given New Zealand’s previous support for the 1986 campaign that ensured New Caledonia was returned to the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation’s list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, the Government must urge President Macron to take a step back before the decolonisation process is further undermined.

Dr Adrian Muckle is a senior lecturer in Pacific history in the History Programme at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington. He has conducted research on New Caledonia since the mid-1990s...

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