New Caledonia Vote Shows Difficulty of Winning Independence, And Lessons for Others

Supporters of independence pose in the streets of Noumea, waving the indigenous Kanak flag after official results for the referendum were reported on Sunday, November 4. (AP Photo/Mathurin Derel)

The people of New Caledonia just voted to remain a part of France. On November 4, this French overseas territory—or sui generis collectivity as it is called—held a binding referendum on independence.

Given its status, one would think that New Caledonia would have been bound for independent statehood. It is after all on the United Nations List of Non-Self-Governing Territories, a distinction that still privileges a small set of nations worldwide, one that is essentially a ticket into the sovereignty club. Relative to the Catalans in Spain who strive to win a referendum, or the West Papuans who endeavor to get on the UN list and to get a referendum, the people of New Caledonia are fortunate. And yet independence may remain elusive for the simple reason that the Kanaks, the indigenous Melanesian people, are no longer a majority in New Caledonia, and may not be able to convince enough voters to choose independence. Winning independence is hard to do.

Inhabited for some three thousand years, New Caledonia was annexed by France in 1853 during the reign of Emperor Napoleon III. Its status as a penal colony between 1864 and 1897 created a settler population, and the seeds for the ethnic division in contemporary New Caledonia were in many ways sown during this time. Roughly a third of contemporary New Caledonians have European ancestry and many of them are descended from these early convicts and settlers.

The names of ethnic groups can have curious origins and the Kanaks are no exception. The term “kanaka” is a Hawaiian word for person that was spread throughout Oceania in the 1800s as part of the developing maritime and plantation pidgin vocabulary. The French modified the term to canaque and applied it to the Melanesians in New Caledonia. Although the term was often used pejoratively during the first century of French domination, it was later revalued and is now regarded with pride.

A visitor to the capital of Nouméa will regularly see the Kanak Independence Flag. Its central image is a flèche faîtière, a type of arrow thrust through several tutut shells. It is superimposed on a tricolor design, the chief vexillological image of France and a symbol of revolution. The irony is that the Kanaks have effectively co-opted the underlying significance of the French design and turned it back upon their colonial master.

The path of the independence movement in New Caledonia holds at least three lessons for movements elsewhere. The first has to do with inclusiveness. It is important to note that while the independence effort in New Caledonia has been Kanak-driven, it is not exclusively Kanak. Other ethnic groups have supported the independence drive at various points, including immigrants from France, elements of the white settler community, and other immigrant populations from Polynesia and Asia.

Indeed, there is a general historical arc in the mass appeal of independence. From the 1950s into the 1970s, the movement included substantial numbers of European New Caledonians, many of whom were drawn to the cause by its message of socialist liberation. From the late 1970s to the 1990s, the movement became more ethnically focused, especially during the violent events of the 1980s (les évènements). However, since the Nouméa Accord of 1998, the independence movement has attempted to broaden its appeal and present a pan-ethnic message as a means to form a winning coalition in advance of the recent referendum. For nations that lack a decisive majority, such as the Catalans in Spain, a broad and more civic appeal is vital.

The second lesson pertains to the vision of the post-independence society. One of the most prominent contemporary leaders of the anti-independence side is Philipe Gomès, an Algerian-born immigrant to New Caledonia. Gomès is a centrist, the founder of the political party Caledonia Together (Calédonie Ensemble), currently the strongest party in New Caledonian politics. In a personal interview, Gomès said that the independence side cannot provide a compelling argument for why independence would make New Caledonia better off. That is, how will the big issues of currency, justice, law and order, defense, and foreign relations be managed?

This is a critique that was leveled effectively at the Scottish National Party: how can the secessionists reduce uncertainty about the basic functionality of the newly independent government? Although such anxieties are mitigated in war-torn societies and failed states, they represent a real problem for secessionists in wealthy democracies. In truth, there is no clear set of rules for managing a formal split, and central governments have an incentive to keep it that way. Voting for independence is voting for an uncertain future.

Finally, independence efforts are often characterized by competing norms and principles. After all, when and under what conditions should the norm of self-determination be raised above the sovereign norm of territorial integrity? All independence efforts face this problem. In the case of New Caledonia, another tension exists between the principle of decolonization and the democratic principle that the will of the majority should prevail. New Caledonia is on the UN List and has the weight of history behind it, but the colonized group, the Kanaks, are no longer a majority. Decolonization is a winning hand, but it does not always win. Such realities matter for groups like the West Papuans, who strive to get back on the UN List as they gradually become a minority in their own land.

These lessons have implications for independence movements in other places like Catalonia, Iraqi Kurdistan, and West Papua. It is rare for an independence movement to have decisive local support, a clear and compelling message regarding independence, and a path that is not blocked by the home state. In many cases, an alternative arrangement that guarantees local rights and/or autonomy may have to do.

Though New Caledonians voted to remain part of France, the independence effort could still win the promised follow-on votes in 2020 or 2022. But to do so, they will have to broaden their appeal, articulate a compelling vision of a post-independence society, and convince a majority of the electorate. Winning independence is hard to do.

Ryan Griffiths is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University.