Alex Vines on the island’s referendum to break free from France

A nickel mine near Voh on the island of New Caledonia

New Caledonia is a large island in the south-western Pacific which hardly ever makes the headlines. It will do soon, however, as it prepares for a referendum on independence.

The island was named by James Cook in 1774, became a French colony in 1853 and a French Overseas Territory in 1946. All its citizens today are fully French citizens.

When New Caledonia is in the news its usually about unique flora and wildlife, from tool-craft intelligent wild crows, almost flightless Kagus and the world’s largest gecko. But what makes New Caledonia strategically important is nickel – it has 10 per cent of the world’s reserves.

James Cook briefly set foot on the island and thought that it looked Caledonian. Like Scotland in 2014, today the territory is preparing for a referendum on independence from France, due by the end of 2018.

Currently New Caledonia is autonomous except in areas such as foreign relations, defence, justice, currency and credit. The Nouméa Accord, signed in 1998, provides for the devolution of power to New Caledonia but the deal also legislated for a referendum on independence from France that needs to be held by the end of 2018.

The referendum will come down to demographics and the key contested issue is the electoral roll. Indigenous Kanaks and others born in the territory are automatically enrolled, but those who moved to the territory after 1994 are excluded from the referendum.

Currently 155,000 voters are eligible to vote in the referendum – broken down to two distinct ethnic blocs: 84,000 Kanaks, who generally favour independence, and 71,000 non-Kanaks, who favour the status quo. This means 13,000 votes will decide the vote. The Remain campaign hopes that the Kanaks’ numerical advantage may be undermined by habitually lower voter turnout among this group and that the desire for economic stability will override identity politics.

In November 2016, the Committee of the Signatories of the Nouméa Accord met in Paris but offered little progress on the electoral roll. The session took place against the backdrop of serious security incidents in New Caledonia, such as armed youths injuring six police officers, five of whom were shot, and barricading the main road that connects the south of the main island to the capital, Nouméa. This led to the France announcing the dispatch of extra police units.

Dominated by socio-economic issues, the main outcome of the meeting was reassurance from the French administration that it would continue to support the nickel mining sector and significant new development contracts during 2017-21. An improved global outlook for nickel prices and demand in 2017, combined with the assurance of continued state support, have provided incentives for mining companies to maintain their investment commitments in the short term but their eyes are on the referendum: neither Vale nor Glencore is making long-term decisions.

The prospect of the referendum and lower nickel prices encouraged Paris and some of New Caledonia’s politicians to seek to diversify their economic and political relationships.

‘Giving France a seat at the table goes against the principles of the PIF’

One unexpected development was in September 2016, when the 16 members of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) voted unanimously to admit New Caledonia and French Polynesia as full members at the PIF’s 47th annual summit.

New Caledonia’s admission should lead to greater engagement in Pacific affairs and expand trade opportunities. It was a success for France’s president, François Hollande, and prime minister, Manuel Valls, who both had lobbied for this during their respective tours of the south Pacific in late 2015 and early 2016. Only the independence movement, the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front, opposed the decision as it did not want it  taken before the territory’s independence referendum.

Equally significant is the decision to admit non-self-governing territories to the PIF, which was created in 1971 to provide the independent countries of the Pacific with their own political voice.

New Caledonia and French Polynesia are on the UN’s decolonization list. The acceptance of the territories as full members goes against the foundations of the organization by giving France a seat at the table in discussions on Pacific affairs. It seems that the members decided that France, which stations naval ships and about 8,000 troops in New Caledonia, is a valued counterweight to China’s growing influence in the Pacific, particularly in Fiji.

New Caledonia is also looking to develop closer collaboration with other neighbours. The president of the territorial government, Philippe Germain, made an official visit to Australia and New Zealand in 2016 to develop closer collaboration.

Australia supported New Caledonia joining the PIF and in April 2016 it also awarded a French state-owned naval contractor a strategically significant submarine contract.

Although many New Caledonians enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the Pacific, prices in New Caledonia are a third more expensive than in France. I discovered an example of effective French protectionism when I bought a can of Australian Fosters lager in a Nouméa supermarket. It was brewed in England.

The New Caledonian referendum will be closely fought over the next 18 months. Many of the neighbours are clearly signalling that they want a French future in the region. The French certainly want to keep New Caledonia, and Paris will campaign hard to retain it as French Overseas Territory.