The tension between France and the Indigenous Kanak population of New Caledonia is set to continue, with the pro-independence Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) seeking advice from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over the 2021 independence referendum.
The Kanaks make up over 40 percent of the New Caledonian population. They have their own parliament – the Customary Senate – which must be consulted by authorities on issues such as Kanak identity, especially in matters of civil status and customary land deals. This year it drew up plans for post-Nouméa Accord discussions.
The 2021 referendum was the third and final vote on the question of New Caledonia’s independence, organized in relation to the directions laid out by the 1998 Nouméa Accord. The first two referendums in 2018 and 2020 resulted in narrow victories for the pro-France vote, with a large and growing Kanak-led independence minority (43.3 percent favored independence in 2018; 46.7 percent did in 2020).
In 2021, a third and final vote was proposed by pro-independence members of congress and accepted. However, when the Delta strain of COVID-19 hit the territory in September 2021, high death rates led to a series of large-scale, traditional mourning rites throughout Noumea, prompting the Kanaks to ask France to postpone the referendum, which the European nation was legally allowed to do – but rejected.
In the wake of the rejection, the Kanak population boycotted the referendum. The vote saw a 96.5 percent victory for the pro-France camp, but with a voter turnout of only 44 percent, compared to 81 percent and 86 percent in 2018 and 2020.
The FLNKS said that the low voter turnout rendered it “inconceivable that one can consider that a minority determines the future of New Caledonia.”
However, a French court threw out a complaint by the Customary Senate, insisting the vote was legally binding.
The disputed independence referendum has led to France pressuring independent parties in the French overseas territory to formally amalgamate New Caledonia with France.
France seemed to initially be accepting of the fact that the vote was marred by low turnout. However, Paris has subsequently resorted to reiterating its self-interests in the region. Speaking in Madrid at the June 2022 NATO summit, French President Emmanuel Macron defended the validity of the vote and the process.
“These three referendums have clearly confirmed the choice of the Caledonians,” he said.
“France carried out an unprecedented process from the point of view of the United Nations and was able to clarify its place in the region. I remind you that the past five-year period there has been three referendums, in a process that had been thought out and wanted since 1988, then 1998.”
Loyalist parties in New Caledonia have been pushing for closer ties with France since the result of the 2021 referendum, but the pro-independence political groups have rejected the result all together, absconding from trilateral talks with France and French loyalists while simultaneously taking their complaints to the United Nations.
Macron has seemingly been content with ignoring the ire of the independence movement and the Kanak population. France elected to proceed with meetings with the loyalists, resulting in a virtual one-sided talk after the independence groups maintained their boycott. Furthermore, loyalist Sonia Backès was announced as the first New Caledonian nomination for a national minister. Her portfolio of citizenship is seen as a controversial concept among the Kanak population.
The French interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, proposed a timetable for talks that includes pressuring all parties to accept a small package of issues before provincial assembly elections in May 2024. Since these assemblies were set up by agreements that have now expired, and which stipulated strict voter eligibility, myriad conflicts are apparent.
The Kanaks have maintained – and indeed it was a stipulation for their signing of the Nouméa Accord – that there must be a residency period in New Caledonia for would-be voters before being allowed at the ballot box. This was to counter the active French policy of immigration to its territories – derogatorily known as Zoreilles – which was designed to specifically outnumber the native population. French loyalists have consistently argued for fewer voting restrictions on all of the territory’s citizens.
Darmanin has pressured the parties to agree on a restricted electorate or face the prospect of all residents being allowed to vote. Rumors have circulated that Marcon’s government even brought the issue of removing all restrictions to France’s Conseil d’État, but the idea was quietly shelved due a combination of legal issues (some judges argued it would breach French law) and a continuous sense of unease amongst France leftists, who argue that colonization efforts should be wound up, not expanded.
In April, the independence movement had talks with France (but not the loyalists) and insist that time is on their side. With 42 percent of the population now Kanak, and New Caledonia simultaneously seeing large swathes of the European-born population leaving the territory, this assumption is hopeful, if not accurate. The Kanaks have continuously pushed for full sovereignty as their ultimate objective.
Recently, the pro-independence movement, represented by president of the New Caledonia Congress, Roch Wamtyan, spoke to a U.N. Decolonization Committee meeting in Bali, Indonesia. He argued that the 2021 referendum went ahead “under pressure from the French state with more than 2,000 soldiers deployed and under a hateful and degrading campaign against the Kanaks.”
The FLNKS further added that French law had failed the Kanak people. “International bodies are our last resort to safeguard our rights as a colonized people,” they told the delegation, noting they would see advice from the ICJ.
With France maintaining their desire for a Pacific outpost, especially in the wake of the AUKUS agreement and their perceived slight from the Australian government over its abandoning of a plan to acquire French nuclear submarines, and the independence movement in New Caledonia stating their ultimate desire to separate from France, there remains an impasse that is unlikely to be solved with heavy-handed diplomacy. It remains to be seen if an independent body like the United Nations can have any tangible impact on the situation, either.