France Allows New Caledonian Independence Referendum to Move Forward

After nine hours of talks in Paris on November 2, French officials have given the territory of New Caledonia permission to hold an independence referendum in the coming year.   New Caledonia is an island 750 miles off the northeastern coast of Australia, which has been a French territory since 1853. The island has a population of about 275,000 people who are divided on the issue. The Caldoches, the descendants of French settlers, generally prefer to remain united with France, but the minority native population of Kanaks strongly favors independence.

Critics fear that an independence referendum will likely provoke increased tension between the Caldoches and Kanaks. Conversely, those who support holding an independence referendum think that it is the best way to prevent increased violence, no matter whether the referendum succeeds or fails.

The Caldoches and Kanaks have a history of sectarian violence. In the 1980s, this aggression culminated in a hostage situation in which nineteen Frenchmen and two Kanaks died.

French officials decided to hold a first independence referendum in 1987, and only 1.7 percent of voters elected to part ways with France. All major independence movements boycotted the vote when France refused UN observers entry.

Currently, it is predicted that New Caledonia will decide to remain a part of France due to the ethnic French’s right-wing tendencies. Referring back to the first round of French presidential elections, Marine Le Pen won 30 percent of the vote, while Emmanuel Macron obtained only 12.76 percent. Additionally, native Kanaks make up only 40 percent of the island’s population, which makes it unlikely that the independence movement will win the majority.

If New Caledonia were to gain independence, it would be the first French territory to do so since Vanatu in 1980. France’s decision to allow this referendum comes swiftly on the heels of Catalonia’s failed declaration of independence from Spain, which France denounced. It remains unclear how this nuanced stance on independence movements will affect the rest of the region.