by H. Haverstock, The Chicago Times
December 11, 2021
NOUMÉA — On Sunday, New Caledonians will vote in the third and final referendum on independence for the French-ruled Pacific territory. Two previous referendums on French independence were held in 2018 and 2020.
New Caledonia, a former French colony that is now an overseas territory with increased autonomy, is located in the South Pacific, approximately three hours east of Australia.
In the 1998 Noumea Accord, an agreement between French and territorial leaders aimed at addressing political and socioeconomic grievances among the Indigenous islanders, known as Kanaks, and giving New Caledonia more autonomy, it was granted the right to three referendums on its future political status.
The first and second referendums were narrowly won by pro-France supporters, who received 56.7 percent and 53.3 percent of the votes, respectively.
The pro-independence parties claim that this year’s sharp increase in COVID-19 cases, culminating in lockdown restrictions in September and October, as well as the time required for traditional mourning rites for the dead among the Kanak community, has severely hampered their ability to prepare for the vote.
France has increased its security presence to oversee the referendum. New Caledonia has a population of approximately 271,407 people, 41.2 percent of whom are Kanak and 24.1 percent are of European, primarily French, ancestry. People born in the territory and long-term residents are eligible to vote, but turnout is expected to be much lower than last year’s 85.6 percent.
In an initial referendum held prior to the Noumea Accord in 1987, independence supporters were outraged by the right granted to recent residents of the territory to vote, and they led a boycott.
The overwhelming pro-France victory sparked violent protests, with reconciliation between French and territorial leaders culminating in the 1988 Matignon Accord, which aimed to correct inequality, and the Noumea Accord, which promoted the vision of “shared sovereignty” ten years later.
Despite this, Indigenous islanders continue to face high levels of poverty when compared to those of European descent, and while New Caledonia has the highest GDP per capita in the Melanesian region at $37,448, Kanak unemployment is estimated to be around 38%.
Independence parties strengthened their position in the territorial government in February by securing six of the eleven seats in the Executive, the territory’s local parliament.
The Caledonia Together and Le Rassemblement (The Rally) parties, among others, argue that maintaining ties with France will ensure economic and geopolitical security. The European power also invests 1.5 billion euros ($1.69 billion) in the territory each year, which it will withdraw if the territory gains independence.