On November 4, an independence referendum took place in New Caledonia. Voters voted for the territory to remain a part of France or become an independent nation. The referendum resulted in 56% of voters rejecting secession, with a voter turnout of over 80% of registered voters, according to Al Jazeera. French President Emmanuel Macron commended the outcome, saying in a televised statement, “I am proud we have finally passed this historic step together.” Many voters worried that New Caledonia would become a completely different place if it were to become independent, and many said they prefer it to remain as is. Another possible reason the referendum failed was the concern around the economy. According to Al Jazeera’s Andrew Thomas, there was concern that “New Caledonia would quickly fall under the sphere influence of China, which has [had] an increasing footprint right across the Pacific…[since] other Pacific island nations receive a lot of Chinese money…” Macron also expressed similar concerns before the vote, even accusing China of seeking hegemony in the Pacific.
The results of the referendum came as a surprise to much of the international community since over the years there have been significant steps towards an independent New Caledonia. France claimed the archipelago in 1853 under Napoleon III, using it to hold prisoners. After World War 2, it became an overseas territory, and the indigenous people, the Kanaks, became citizens. In the late 20th century, the Kanak people not only suffered brutal discrimination but also violent ethnic clashes. Finally, in 1988, peace was found, leading to the 1998 Nouméa Accord guaranteeing an independence referendum that year.
The Nouméa Accord, which also guaranteed the November 4 referendum, allows for two similar referenda before the end of 2022. Recently, many French territories have called for independence, however, New Caledonia is the only one to hold a recent referendum. While some, like voter Monette Saihulinwa, say that “[they] don’t necessarily want [their] lives to change,” according to News Observer, others were worried that economically the nation would collapse without the around $1.1 billion in French subsidies New Caledonia receives yearly. Those in favour of New Caledonia’s secession have coined the referendum as “historic.” According to News Observer, people in favour have “been waiting for 30 years for this vote…It’s building a country together.”
With 43.33% of registered voters in favour of an independent New Caledonia, there may be a chance that side will gain enough voters by 2022. But if this is to happen, in the meantime, the nation needs to make up for the lost French subsidies and financial backing. Hopefully, this would not result in indebtment to other Pacific nations as seen elsewhere. One anti-independence New Caledonian woman, Manuela, told the Associated Press, “France is like the protector of New Caledonia…If France were not here, we would just be a tiny island surrounded by very big states, like China, which would have a greater influence here.” Even those that seek independence fear the word because they would rather a close ‘partnership’ with France.
For New Caledonia to eventually become an independent nation would require two things: 1) an economy which can stand (mostly) on its own, and 2) less division within its diverse population. The population is starkly divided, consisting of around 40% indigenous Kanak people, around 30% of European descent and the remaining population mostly Asian/Pacific Islander. Over the last century, the division has continued, specifically between the Kanaks and those of European descent. The Kanaks are overwhelmingly for the independence of New Caledonia whereas those of European descent are typically not. Regarding the economy, a college student from the Loyalty Islands, Guylene, spoke to the Associated, “New Caledonia has a difficult history…I think independence is necessary, but there is the issue of the economy. France gives a lot of money,” also suggesting that New Caledonia should develop the areas of tourism, forestry, and technological innovation.
The student’s ideas are correct. Stabilizing the economy of New Caledonia through areas such as tourism, forestry, and technological innovation could reduce its reliance on France. As most New Caledonians are in favour of keeping a close partnership with France, it is necessary for New Caledonia to become much more financially independent before seceding. A partnership between France and New Caledonia could continue, to check the feared influence of nations such as China.
However, as noted, the other requirement for secession is creating a united New Caledonian population. The current division may subside as the financial stakes held by France decrease, since a great deal of the money France invests into the public sector end up going to the Europeans working in New Caledonia, rather than indigenous peoples. According to World Politics Review, an interview with an economics professor named Ris at the University of New Caledonia revealed that “some studies [show that] most of [the] money goes back to France…There is some investment, but there are also a lot of salaries paid to people who are from France.” The professor added that in terms of salary, these workers from France are paid nearly double what they would back home – resulting in New Caledonia’s high cost of living.
Overall, the economic viability of New Caledonia is complicated. As New Caledonia takes in around $1.1 billion in French subsidies many worry that the nation could not stand on its own. Yet, at the same time, it is also these French subsidies fuelling the economic hardship and unemployment among the Kanaks, causing a cultural divide. Therefore, independence requires a careful and eventual withdrawal from the economic dependence on France. This can be done by creating more opportunities in tourism, forestry, and technological innovation, while lessening French subsidies, especially for public sector jobs.
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