On 4 November, indigenous and some other longstanding New Caledonian residents will vote on the question “Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?” The referendum process will re-shape the role of France in the South Pacific at a time of geostrategic change, and yet is passing relatively unmarked in our media and our region.
There was a brief flicker of interest in May when President Macron visited Australia en route to Noumea, drawing puzzlement as he spoke of an Indo-Pacific strategic “diamond” running from Paris to Delhi to Canberra and Noumea. In Noumea he fleshed out the role of New Caledonia in this vision, underlining that its engagement was contingent on voting to stay with France.
Why speak of New Caledonia in these strategic terms, and what will the referendum mean for France’s regional role?
The answers lie in shifts in French strategic assessments since the bad old days when it tested nuclear bombs at Mururoa in French Polynesia, even bombing protestors in Auckland harbour in 1985; and resisted decolonization calls over decades when other Pacific islands were becoming independent. By the end of the 1990s, regional opprobrium, some pretty deft diplomacy by the small Pacfic island states, civil war in New Caledonia and the beginnings of domestic metropolitan concern finally pushed France to stop its Pacific nuclear testing in French Polynesia and negotiate conciliatory agreements in New Caledonia.
By the early 2000s France had introduced a suite of regional policies to improve its image,
mostly involving defence and other cooperation with Australia and New Zealand, including emergency assistance and fisheries intelligence sharing with island governments, defence exercises, and a modest aid program.
From 2011, a series of official reviews took another look at what was at stake for France in its Pacific presence, which was based fundamentally on its sovereignty in New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna and uninhabited Clipperton Island. Those reviews identified the Pacific territories’ role in underpinning France’s status as number 2 global maritime power (of France’s over 11 m.ha global EEZ, 7 m. ha come from its Pacific presence) and its place at the wider Asia-Pacific table as the region grows in economic importance; their role as bases for France’s military presence; their contribution to its scientific and technological expertise including in space; and their resources.
New Caledonia is the jewel in the French Pacific crown. France invests more than $A 2 b. a year there, and announced a move of its Pacific military headquarters to Noumea from Tahiti in 2008. France has invested heavily in plants processing the archipelago’s nickel resource (estimated to be at least 25% of global reserves).
When civil war culminated in a bloody hostage incident in 1988, France negotiated the Matignon/Oudinot Accords, backed by the Bercy Agreement to redistribute the benefits of nickel production, promising an independence vote by 1998. All parties then agreed in the 1998 Noumea Accord to defer the vote by twenty years to 2018, on a promise of extensive transfers of responsibilities. The result is a sui generis status for New Caledonia, alone amongst France’s overseas possessions.
The agreements have presided over thirty years of predictability and peace, and the November referendum signals that this period is coming to an end. The 4 November vote is the first of up to three potential votes. If the answer is no, a second vote may be held in two years’ time, and again two years later if the answer is still no. After that, the French state must conduct talks about the future status of New Caledonia. But in a communique on 4 October, the French Prime Minister’s office indicated it will oversee talks between all parties after the 4 November vote, whatever the outcome.
While it is generally accepted, even by independence supporters, that the first vote is likely to be a “no”, the particular special electorate eligible to vote in the referendum is untested, and indigenous population growth could alter the base in the next four years.
The main game now is effectively the dialogue process. There are many forums for discussion, including the successful institutions set up by the Accords – the local Government or Cabinet, the Congress, the Customary Senate, and the steering Committee of Signatories – and a new one France set up in late 2017, the Dialogue Committee on the Future. This Committee will focus on what is to happen the day after the referendum.
In the event of a “yes” vote, it will prepare a date of declaration of independence. In the more likely case of a “no” vote, it will consider a number of sensitive issues: the remaining sovereign powers not yet transferred, New Caledonia’s international status, and citizenship questions (preserving employment and voting rights for long-term residents); immigration control and fairer distribution of nickel revenues; and, somewhat belatedly, how to improve the lot of alienated young Kanaks.
So discussion over the coming four years, possibly punctuated by two further votes, will re-define the way in which France is engaged in New Caledonia, and the region, regardless of the vote outcomes.
For Australia, there are risks involved as the predictability of the recent past is about to change, in this, our closest neighbor off the Brisbane coast. This change is occurring when there are other instabilities in the Melanesian arc, notably coinciding with a similar referendum process in Bougainville; and when new regional players including China create uncertainty. Our best bet is to continue to support the full and fair implementation of the process without taking sides, while urging the continued constructive involvement in the region by France as a well-resourced and well-disposed western ally, regardless of the referendum outcome.
New Caledonia, South Pacific, France (10 October 2018)
Denise Fisher is a Former High Commissioner to Zimbabwe and Consul-General Noumea. Visiting Fellow ANU Research Centre for Europe.