Independence is on the ballot for New Caledonians this December, a pivotal moment for the Pacific Island territory’s future and a possible challenge to French global power.

The vote comes at a significant time in New Caledonian history. This summer, a pro-independence Kanak became president of the overseas French territory for the first time. Kanak are the indigenous Melanesian inhabitants of New Caledonia. The rest of the government is made up of mostly pro-independence politicians, which was not the case in 2018 and 2020 when past independence referendums took place.

The past two votes were held according to the terms of the Nouméa Accord, a 22-year plan laid out by France in 1998 to increase Kanak power following violent civil unrest. New Caledonians rejected independence both times by 57% and 53% respectively. The accord allows three votes for self-determination. The third and final one is Dec.12, meaning that this is New Caledonians’ last chance for independence.

“The establishment of full sovereignty, of independence, means for the Kanaks the end of colonization and the beginning of a new era,” Kanak scholar and activist Laure Tindao told the online news site Nationalia last year. Independence will end “the colonial trading post economy … under the control of the island’s oligarchs and right-wing colonial organizations.”

New Caledonia is in the southwest Pacific, 750 miles east of Australia. The country has one main island and several smaller ones forming a land mass the size of Taiwan. The outcome of the referendum will not only affect New Caledonians, but also other French territories in the Pacific. French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna have long had their own unfulfilled independence movements which will be impacted by the outcome of the New Caledonian decision.

The islands’ former colonizer, France, is keeping a close eye on the referendum too. France currently administers 13 territories across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. France’s overseas territories in the Indo-Pacific account for nearly 93% of its Exclusive Economic Zone, making it the second-largest holder of EEZ in the world after the United States. The EEZ gives France sovereign rights to explore, exploit and manage the abundant resources in the region.

The Pacific territories are so important to France that the French defense force in the region accounts for nearly 60% of France’s permanent military presence overseas, mostly to protect the islands’ resource wealth from illicit trafficking. Of the seven overseas French territories in the Indo-Pacific, New Caledonia commands significant political and economic importance.

“New Caledonia is the jewel of France’s overseas possessions, its regional military headquarters, base for scientific research, and site of strategic mineral reserves including nickel, chrome, cobalt and hydrocarbons,” writes Denise Fisher, an Australian diplomat and author of the 2013 book France in the South Pacific: Power and Politics.

French President Emmanuel Macron went out of his way to emphasize the territory’s importance during a 2018 visit to New Caledonia, saying, “France would not be the same without New Caledonia,” and warning of “new hegemony” taking over the region, a clear reference to China’s efforts to increase control in the Indo-Pacific.

France sees itself as a “mediating, inclusive and stabilizing power” in the region that aims to promote a “stable, law-based and multipolar order” wrote scholar Pierre Morcos earlier this year for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. With China’s increasing assertiveness and U.S. interest in fostering relations with the Indo-Pacific, the Pacific territories give France a powerful role in the region. Losing New Caledonia could be the beginning of the end of France’s global strategic and economic reach.  

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