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Words that count: New Caledonia’s referendum question

The continued divide in Caledonian society is shown by the very formulation of the question that will help decide the territory’s future.

Sunset on Isle of Pines, New Caledonia (Photo: junaidrao/Flickr)
Sunset on Isle of Pines, New Caledonia (Photo: junaidrao/Flickr)

“Do you want New Caledonia to accede full sovereignty and become independent?” This is the question New Caledonian voters will be asked in the referendum on independence from France on 4 November 2018.

The question’s formulation is an important milestone in the referendum process, and was the result of a marathon 16-hour meeting between signatories to the Nouméa Accord (the territory’s roadmap leading to the 2018 referendum agreed to by loyalists, separatists, and the French Government). Settling on the question was the last hurdle in the Accord process, and New Caledonia has now entered the final phase before the vote.

The presence of the terms “full sovereignty” and “independence” in the question is striking  – why include both?

If the “No” vote wins, the status quo would stay unchanged, and the local government of New Caledonia could vote to have a second referendum in two years’ time.

But if the “Yes” vote prevails, “full sovereignty” and “independence” would imply the same thing, with the same consequences: the transfer to New Caledonia of sovereign powers (defence, foreign affairs, currency, justice, and public order); access to an international status of full responsibility; and the organisation of its citizenship into a nationality.

So why did French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe formulate the question this way?

For the pro-independence camp, comprising the National Union for Independence (UNI) and the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), it was important to rely strictly on vocabulary used in the Nouméa Accord when formulating the question. According to Louis Mapou, UNI-FLNKS Group Leader at the Congress:

The wording is simple for us. The word ‘full sovereignty’ is in the Accord and it’s the only word. I challenge anyone to tell me where the word ‘independence’ is.

The preference for using the word “full sovereignty” instead of “independence” clearly communicates the fact that Kanak separatists do not advocate for a “strong break” with the metropole, such as the one France applied to Algeria in 1962.

Rather, they call for independence in “partnership” with France. Knowing that French support given to the island makes up more than 15% of the territory’s annual GDP, the word “independence” could potentially scare-off voters favourable to the pro-independence camp.

On the other side, the loyalists were more open to use either or both words. Philippe Gomès, leader of the loyalists, reminded all that despite the fact that the word “independence” was not mentioned in the Nouméa Accord, it was used in the last referendums held by France in the Comoros in 1974 and Djibouti in 1977. Both cases provided a “Yes” result.

In this context, it is clear that the final formulation offered by Philippe is a compromise made to accommodate the wishes of both camps. It is also good timing that a settlement has been reached before President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to the French Pacific archipelago, expected in early May.

Since Philippe last visited the island in December, much has been accomplished for the prospects of a peaceful referendum. The electroal roll has been established and approved, the date for the vote is now fixed, and the referendum question has been written and agreed upon. 

However, more than the question of independence, which according to a recent poll seems unlikely, the government should be worried about the prospect of disorder and frustration on the island. Domestic tensions in the 1980s saw violent clashes. After the referendum, how can unity and inclusiveness of all New Caledonian residents be improved and maintained?

The legacy of the Matignon and Nouméa Accords has been perceived around the world as positive for the territory. First of all, the indigenous Kanaks’ identity has been officially recognised and a special citizenship for New Caledonians established which offers voting and employment rights to long-term residents of the island. Democratic institutions and mechanisms have also been strengthened by the creation of local assemblies and the New Caledonia Congress, a “territorial congress” that manages the particular legislature of New Caledonia.

The Accords also strengthened the economy of the island, with France investing in the extraction industry and supporting the public sector. Today, France’s financial assistance makes up more than one-sixth of the territory’s GDP (totalling US$10.77 billion in 2015) and pays half the cost of public services in the territory.

Many would argue, however, that the Accords failed to achieve their main goal, which was to create a community linked by a common destiny. The RIN (Rally of Separatists and Nationalists) argues that there is still social inequality in the territory, including too little emancipation.

More than a third of Kanak youth are unemployed. Between 2009 and 2016, delinquency has increased by 30%, and the use of alcohol and drugs has skyrocketed. On the economic front, the island still relies dangerously on the proceeds of nickel extraction and on French support. It is crucial for the territory to diversify its economy, and a lot can be done to improve the social and political aspect of life in New Caledonia.

It is still too early to draw conclusions on the effectiveness of the Accords. Yet the lack of consensus demonstrated throughout the referendum process proves that, despite 30 years of peaceful decolonisation built upon these agreements, Caledonian society remains divided on the issue of independence.

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