Let's look at New Caledonia's independence referendum

IN this column I have tried to sort the wheat from the chaff on Brexit and pass on useful news. But, in what looks like yet another “sound and fury signifying nothing” Brexit week, I’ll look at something else crossing my desk as a member of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Committee – New Caledonia’s independence referendum.

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First published in The National, 9 November 2018

We’re neutral in others’ internal discussions, believing the people best placed to make decisions are those who live there, but in the SNP we support the right to self-determination and the rule of law.

Over the weekend the 175,000 eligible voters of the islands were asked: “Do you want New Caledonia to attain full sovereignty and become independent?”

Around 56% voted “No” and 44% voted “Yes.” The turnout was extremely high at 80.6% so the tiny Pacific territory has voted, for now, to remain part of France in a long-awaited referendum.

This was a much closer final result than even recent polls suggesting a far more comfortable win for the pro-France side. But the vote has also exposed other divisions, difficult to resolve.

Around 40% of the population are indigenous Kanaks, with the next largest ethnic group being ethnic Europeans, at just over 27% in the latest census. Of New Caledonia’s three provinces, two – North Province and the Loyalty Islands – voted for independence, while a majority of voters in South Province, which is largely ethnic European, chose to stay with France. To see voting divided along such lines makes me uneasy.

While the first European to see New Caledonia was James Cook, who named it after the Latin term for today’s Scotland, the islands were annexed by France in 1853 on the order of Emperor Napoleon III.

The desire for independence has long been a defining element of the local politics and after an occasionally violent campaign, in 1998, the French government signed an agreement with an alliance of pro-independence political parties – the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) – to hold referendums on full independence proposed for this year, 2020 and 2022, should the local government wish to hold them.

While some powers have been devolved to the islands, their population are French citizens and vote in the country’s elections, one of 12 overseas territories France retained sovereignty over since the end of colonialism. Constitutionally, they’re as much a part of France as Arran is a part of Scotland.

The islands’ main newspaper, Les Nouvelles Caledoniennes, predicted that the strong showing by the “yes” campaign will be used as an argument for another poll in two years. I would agree – I don’t see how with a timetable already in place there cannot be another vote. However, they also noted that while a “vast majority” of indigenous Kanaks voted for independence, other ethnic groups did not, which it said showed pro-independence groups failed to win over voters outside their historic support base.

There was also limited violence in the run up to the vote, and the question is far from settled. “For us it’s just a question of time, and you know that time in Oceania is measured differently,” FLNKS independence spokesperson Daniel Goa said in a speech last month. There are not many signs of compromise. He went on: “As long as a single Kanak person is standing, he will fight for his freedom … We are this country, we are this land, it is Kanak and it will remain Kanak forever.”

There is a lot at stake. New Caledonia has huge nickel resources already being exploited, as well as massive maritime assets which France counts towards its “blue economy”. There is scope for further violence, we can only hope that Paris does more to encourage dialogue and respect, and that all sides show restraint.

But the world is changing, and the old orders are breaking down as the world shifts focus away from former colonial powers. It is up to every place everywhere to decide its future, and so long as that is peaceful and within the rule of law then change is not to be feared in and of itself.