New Caledonia Votes Down Independence

November 4th, 2018

New Caledonia Flag
The flag of New Caledonia.

The total number of independent countries almost increased by one recently, when New Caledonia held its latest referendum on independence. New Caledonians voted to remain a territory of France, but the result was close—nearly 44% of the citizens voted for independence.

A collection of islands located 750 mi east of Australia, New Caledonia has a population of 268,767, comprised of the native Kanak people, Europeans, Polynesians, and people from Southeast Asia.

There is evidence of people living in New Caledonia since 1600 BC, and it was largely isolated from the outside world for centuries. Although the islands were visited by English, French, and American explorers in the 1700s, it was not until around 1840 that contact increased, largely due to the interest in sandalwood grown in the region.

New Caledonia
Saint Josef Cathedral and Moselle Bay in Noumea, New Caledonia

The territory has experienced a turbulent history, including a period in which native people were taken from the islands and forced into labor in plantation agriculture and mines. In 1853, France formally took possession of New Caledonia, which it then used as a penal colony.

Unrest has continued over the years, and in the 1980s, there were violent conflicts between native Kanaks and French forces. To end the violence, it was decided that there would be a number of officially prescribed referendums on independence. The most recent vote is the second referendum to occur. If voters had opted for independence, it would have been the first of France’s territories to separate in almost 40 years.

With a GDP of nearly $10 billion, New Caledonia is one of the most important economies in the South Pacific, and the French government has a vested interest in retaining the territory as its own. Large nickel deposits and its strategic location make New Caledonia economically and politically valuable to France. In turn, New Caledonia benefits greatly from French financial support. A direct infusion of French capital accounts for over 15% of the territory’s GDP.

The most recent referendum is not the necessarily the last. New Caledonia may still have a chance at independence, as there can be two additional referendums held before 2022.