New Caledonia will not separate from France. At least in the near future. The no to independence triumphed with 96% of the vote in this Sunday's referendum in the French archipelago of 270,000 inhabitants in the Pacific Ocean. The reason for this resounding result is that the supporters of the yes had called not to participate, claiming that the covid-19 pandemic has prevented a campaign and a proper vote. The turnout was 44%.
French President Emmanuel Macron declared: “Tonight France is more beautiful because New Caledonia has chosen to stay there.” According to Macron, “a transition period opens which, freed from the binary alternative between yes and no, must lead to build a common project recognizing and respecting the dignity of each one. ”
The massive abstention and absence from the polls of one of the parties threatens to open a debate on the validity of the result and leave the dispute open. The independentistas will want to be able to vote again for independence one day. The loyalists – supporters of a French New Caledonia – will consider that this referendum settles the debate and that it is time to define the future status of the archipelago within France.
The referendum was the third since 2018 and is the result of the Matignon agreements that in 1988 put an end to a period of almost civil war. It had to be the final vote: the one that finally decided whether New Caledonia, colonized by France in 1853 and registered since 1986 on the UN list of non-autonomous territories pending decolonization, remained part of the French Republic or became a fully sovereign state.
Roch Wamytan, historical leader of the independence movement and president of the Congress of New Caledonia, declared to the chain France Info: politics, there have only been two referendums: 2018 and 2020. This [el de 2021] is the referendum of the French state and its supporters in New Caledonia. Not ours. ”
The campaign and the vote took place in an anomalous local political environment, due to the pandemic and the call of one of the parties not to participate, and in a marked context in France because of the presidential elections in April and the possibility that a change of president will redefine priorities. To this is added an international context of Chinese strength in the Indo-Pacific.
A report by the Strategic Research Institute of the Military Academy, under the French Ministry of the Armies, indicates that “an independent New Caledonia would be, in fact, under Chinese influence ”. The report, published in October, argues that New Caledonia would become a key piece for China in “isolating Australia.” “In addition,” he adds, “it would guarantee China the supply of raw materials, especially nickel.”
The question in the referendum this Sunday was the same as in the previous two: “¿¿ Do you want New Caledonia to access full sovereignty and become independent? ”
The independentists of the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) called in October not to participate. One argument was that COVID-19, which broke out in New Caledonia in September, has prevented a fair campaign. Another independence argument is that France, committed since the Matignon agreements with the decolonization of New Caledonia, has abandoned neutrality in the process.
In 2018, it did not obtain 57%; yes 43%. In 2020, no 53% and yes 47%. The turnout was 80% and 85%, respectively. 41% of the population is Kanak (original population of the archipelago) and 24% of Europeans or Caldoches. The rest comes from other territories or communities.
The independentistas had the wind in their favor. Refusal to participate may seem illogical. Things have changed. Not just because of the pandemic. The health crisis has demonstrated the advantages of belonging to France.
“Since the covid entered New Caledonia, France has been hyper-present at our side,” he says by phone, from the archipelago, Philippe Gomès, centrist deputy for New Caledonia in the French National Assembly. Gomès talks about institutional, economic and health aid.
On the situation in which New Caledonia remains after the referendum marked by abstention and the possibility that this delegitimizes the result, Gomès considers : “It will not create a legal problem. In law, a level of participation cannot be required for the referendum to be valid. So the question is political. And politically, does the fact that the independentists do not participate affect the result? We believe that the result will be legitimate ”. And he points out that it was the independentists who initially asked for the referendum, and that it is the third in which the same result comes out.
A result recognized only by one of the parties “resembles a dead end ”, admits the deputy,“ but nobody will go to the bottom of the alley because everyone knows that there is a wall there ”. In his opinion, after a time of “digestion” and after the presidential elections in France, a new negotiation should be opened in view of a new legal status in the interior of France that, again, must be put to a vote. The era of referendums is not over.
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