A majority of voters in New Caledonia chose to remain part of France instead of backing independence, election officials announced as French President Emmanuel Macron promised a full dialogue on the region’s future. The decision to keep ties with France was a watershed moment for the archipelago. The independence referendum itself was a milestone in New Caledonia’s three-decades-long decolonisation process, which was borne out of deep resentment by the region’s native Kanaks of decades of ill treatment by their European coloniser. Final results saw 56.4 per cent of voters choosing to remain part of France compared to 43.6 per cent support for independence, the high commissioner’s office said. The poll had a record-high participation rate of 80.6 per cent of registered voters — so many that some polling stations in the capital, Noumea, had to stay open about an hour longer than planned yesterday to handle the crush.
Last month, a year before the deadline for the referendum on independence from France, French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe visited the semi-autonomous territory of New Caledonia. Philippe is anxious about potential unrest. In October, a special delegation of New Caledonians expressed their concerns to the UN decolonisation committee in New York. According to them, the Noumea Accord (the territory’s roadmap leading to the 2018 referendum) is not being applied correctly. How this situation unfolds will be of significant interest to the region.
A year out from New Caledonia’s independence referendum, it is still unclear who will be allowed to vote. A similar referendum was held during the tumultuous 1980s but the indigenous people boycotted it, which exacerbated tensions between the Kanaks and French loyalists. Since then two major accords between the rival camps have stabilised the political scene, with the 1998 Noumea Accord providing the decolonisation roadmap to next year’s vote. Challenges to finalise the electoral roll remain, which legal scholar Mathias Chauchat is watching closely.
New Caledonia’s pro-independence FLNKS movement says for next year’s independence referendum to be fair, the electoral roll needs to be sincere. Under the Noumea Accord, voting rights are restricted to long-term residents, but for years there have been disputes over the make-up of the roll. There are claims that some settlers are on the roll although they fail the residency requirements.
The United Nations has sent a delegation to New Caledonia in the lead up to crucial municipal and provincial elections as supporters and opponents of independence joust over who should have the right to vote. The UN delegation arrived in New Caledonia in March in the midst of the electoral campaign for local town councils. The visit also coincided with the arrival of French judges charged with updating the electoral rolls for national elections to be held on 11 May. According to a UN statement, the objective of the visit is to monitor “New Caledonia’s provincial electoral process, especially the technical issues related to the electoral lists for the provincial elections in May, as well as to uphold the spirit and letter of the 1998 Noumea Accord in this process.” New Caledonia was relisted with the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation in 1986, and since that time the UN has maintained a watching brief over progress towards a referendum on self-determination in the French Pacific dependency.