New Caledonia Rejects Independence in Boycotted 3rd Vote

New Caledonia Map

On December 12, 2021, New Caledonia held its third vote to determine if the territory would gain its independence from France. As in two previous referendums on the matter, the results indicated that a majority supports New Caledonia remaining a French territory.

The 1998 Noumea Accord prescribed up to three referendums by 2022. The first one was held in 2018. New Caledonians voted to remain a territory of France, but by a slim margin—almost 44% of the citizens voted for independence. The second vote, in 2020, was a similarly close call but was again won by pro-Paris supporters. The vote on December 12, 2021 was the third, and 96.5% voted against independence.

New Caledonia Flag
The flag of New Caledonia.

The French government now considers the matter of New Caledonia independence resolved, but the legitimacy of the December vote is being questioned. A large percentage of the eligible voters did not vote; indigenous people who support independence boycotted the referendum.

To understand the boycott, it helps to look at New Caledonia's history, its troubled relationship with France, and the impact of Covid-19 in the region.

Saint Josef Cathedral and Moselle Bay in Noumea, New Caledonia

New Caledonia is a collection of islands located 750 mi east of Australia. Its population of nearly 290,000 is made up of the native Kanak people, Europeans, Polynesians, and people from Southeast Asia. The islands were visited by English, French, and American explorers in the 1700s, and in the mid-1800s, that contact increased, largely due to interest in the sandalwood grown in the region.

New Caledonia 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 the territory and used it as a penal colony. The Kanaks were confined to reserves and excluded from most of the island’s economy. This treatment led to numerous violent revolts, the first occurring in 1878. Through the 1980s, violent conflicts between native Kanaks and French forces continued.

In 1998, the Noumea Accord called for three officially prescribed referendums on independence. The first vote was held in 2018 and the second was in 2020. The most recent vote was the third, but pro-independence groups want a redo.

In the months before the third referendum, New Caledonia's pro-independence party called for "non-participation," requesting that the vote be postponed until 2022 because of the Covid-19 epidemic. The request was refused, a court appeal for delay also failed, so the Kanak coalition called for a boycott of the referendum.

Only 43.9% of eligible voters cast a ballot. The abstainers were mostly indigenous Kanaks, who, until recent months, were active participants in the consultation process. Covid-19 took a major toll on New Caledonia in 2021, infecting over 12,000 people and causing 280 deaths, the majority among Kanaks, and other Pacific islanders.

Currently, New Caledonia enjoys considerable autonomy and has a mutually beneficial relationship with France. 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. New Caledonia benefits greatly from French financial support—a direct infusion of French capital accounts for over 15% of the territory’s GDP.

New Caledonia's pro-independence party plans to wait until after the 2022 French elections before resuming its dialog with Paris. A fourth independence vote is a possibility, so New Caledonia’s status as a French territory remains in limbo. At Seterra, we'll monitor the situation, and if New Caledonia votes for independence, we'll be ready to update all affected map quizzes.