European governments are dealing with multiple secessionist movements, both on the mainland and in their overseas possessions. Should New Caledonia vote in favor of independence from France, other separatist movements will feel emboldened. The vote is also relevant at a time of growing geopolitical competition in the Pacific.
What Will Happen Nov. 4
Voters in New Caledonia, an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean some 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) east of Australia, will go to the polls on Nov. 4 to decide whether they desire independence from France. With a population of roughly 270,000 people, the islands are heavily dependent on financing from Paris. But they are also home to around 15 percent of the world's reserves of nickel, a metal present in a vast line of products from steel to electronics, and host French naval and air forces. Secessionist groups in Europe, as well as New Caledonia's neighbors, will be watching the vote closely.
A Divided Population
New Caledonia has been under French control since 1853, and in 1946, it became a French overseas territory. Around 39 percent of the population belongs to an indigenous ethnic group known locally as Kanaks, while roughly 27 percent are descendants of European settlers, known in the islands as Caldoches. These groups clashed violently in the 1980s, which forced the French government to intervene and grant some degree of autonomy to New Caledonia, though Paris still controls key areas like defense, foreign affairs and monetary policy. The archipelago held an independence referendum in 1987, and 98 percent of voters decided to remain in France. Voter turnout, however, was very low because of a boycott by pro-independence groups.
Opinion polls for the Nov. 4 referendum put support for remaining in France at between 60 and 70 percent. Pro-independence supporters, most of whom are Kanaks, argue that a New Caledonian republic would allow the islands to control their natural resources and protect their identity and traditions; some groups have suggested the nationalization of the nickel industry. Anti-independence supporters, most of whom are Caldoches, warn that independence would impoverish the islands and subject them to the influence of foreign powers, most notably China.
While Paris has expressed its neutrality on the referendum, president Emmanuel Macron visited New Caledonia in May and expressed his interest in the islands remaining French.
A vote in favor of independence would be followed by a transitional period, and New Caledonia would only become independent in 2021. But even if people vote against independence, an agreement between the French government and pro- and anti-independence groups allows for two new referendums by 2022 if the islands' legislature requests them. But anti-independence groups hope that the rejection of independence will be so overwhelming on Nov. 4 that no additional votes occur.
Foreign Players Will Be Watching
While the French government has expressed its neutrality on the referendum, President Emmanuel Macron visited New Caledonia in May and expressed his interest in the islands remaining French. Australia has also remained officially neutral, but Canberra would probably be relieved if New Caledonia remained within the French orbit, especially at a time of concern about China's role in the Pacific. Foreign support for the independence cause has been modest. However, pro-independence groups in places like Corsica, French Polynesia and Catalonia will be watching the vote closely, hoping that a vote in favor of secession aids their causes.