Voters in New Caledonia cast their ballots on Sunday in a referendum whether the French Pacific territory should remain part of France, which claimed the South Pacific island cluster as part of its empire in 1853 – or break away and become fully independent.
According to government officials in Noumea, voter turnout one hour before closing was 73.68 per cent, which was about 15 percentage points more than the turnout for 2014 provincial elections.
The record turnout was lauded by local media as historic. Counting has begun and results are expected to appear within hours.
The vote is being seen as a litmus test of sentiment in France’s far-flung overseas territories, with both French Guiana in South America and the Indian Ocean archipelago of Mayotte having experienced protests last year over perceived neglect by Paris.
French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to make a statement about the outcome of the vote at about 11:00 pm local time (1200 GMT).
The voting comes 165 years after the south Pacific archipelago was first colonized by France.
The referendum is due to a 1998 agreement signed by France and the main local forces, which complemented a 1988 peace deal.
Residents were asked to vote “yes” or “no” in reply to the question: “Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?”
In the last referendum for independence in 1987, 98 per cent voted to stay with France, but that result was likely impacted by the pro-independence movement calling for a boycott.
New Caledonia has seen a long struggle over its future, marked by revolts by native Kanak communities in 1878 and 1917 and, more recently, violence in the 1980s.
There were five main groups campaigning in Sunday’s vote.
Two called for independence in the name of dignity, the quest for freedom, and the meaning of history, while the three others supported voting “no” because France is a link between communities, and protects and guarantees prosperity.
Most observers expect the 174,000 voters to reject independence. The latest major opinion poll, by Harris Interactive for France TV, showed 66 per cent of those questioned opting for a “no” vote.
The Kanaks, who made up 39 per cent of New Caledonia’s population in France’s 2014 census, are more favourable to independence.
The descendants of European colonists and deportees, 27 per cent of the population, have tended to oppose it.
There are fears the referendum could inflame ethnic tensions between the Kanaks and the white population.
New Caledonia had a total population of 269,000 – including minors – in France’s 2014 census. Only those with long-standing links to the territory are on the electoral list for the referendum.
Macron stayed largely clear of the campaign, except for one visit to Noumea in May, when he acknowledged the “pains of colonization” and said: “France would be less beautiful without New Caledonia.”
The archipelago on the South Pacific is known for tourism associated with its lagoons, beaches and diverse wildlife. The island lies 1,200 kilometres east of Australia and 18,000 kilometres from Paris.
The place has been inhabited by first settlers since they arrived in New Caledonia about 3,000 years ago.
The archipelago was named New Caledonia in 1774 by British explorer James Cook. Napoleon III claimed the territory for France in 1853, after which it became a penal colony.
New Caledonia currently formulates its own laws, including for taxation and labour. But Paris controls its defence and foreign policies and also provides some 1.5 billion US dollars every year.
If New Caledonia votes to separate from France, it will be the first such decision since the French-British condominium of Vanuata opted for independence in 1980. The last fully French colony to become independent was Djibouti in 1977.
Should the majority of voters opt to remain with France, there could be two more similar plebiscites in New Caledonia by 2022.
Over the past few decades, New Caledonia has turned into a multinational region. It has been one of the most economically attractive territories in the Pacific and has seen high levels of migration, mostly from neighboring Asian countries. Additionally, New Caledonia remains one of France’s most attractive travel destinations.
It is also rich in mineral resources, including nickel, cobalt, chrome, iron, manganese, silver, gold, lead, and copper. In particular, New Caledonia produces 10 percent of the world’s nickel.
However, in economic terms, the island is largely dependent on France, which ensures 30 percent of its public spending. Prices in the French special collectivity are 20% higher than the Eurozone average, and the levels of unemployment remain high due to numerous social and ethnic inequalities.
Europe’s overseas territories
Although Europe’s former colonial empires have been largely broken up, several countries remain overseas territories. While some enjoy relative autonomy, others are pushing for independence.
What are ‘non-self-governing’ territories? The United Nations defines non-self-governing territories as those “whose people have not yet attained a full measure of self-government.” The UN Charter also calls for so-called administrating powers of those territories, which are relics of colonialism, to develop self-government.
A resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1960 called for “immediate steps” to be taken to transfer power to people in the territories and to end “colonialism in all its forms and manifestations.”
Out of the 17 non-self-governing territories listed by the UN, 14 of them are administrated by European countries.
EU Overseas Countries and Territories (OCTs): The European Union has a special cooperation with 25 territories that fall under the responsibility of France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Denmark. The EU notes that overseas territories are not sovereign countries but depend on the four member states to varying degrees. Although the territories have “wide-ranging autonomy,” the areas of defense and foreign policy are decided by the EU member states.
France currently has 13 overseas territories across the globe that are home to some 2.6 million people. All of the residents are French nationals, can vote for president and send representatives to France’s National Assembly and Senate.
Out of those, five are classified as overseas departments — meaning they are fully subject to French laws. They include the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, the Indian Ocean islands of Reunion and Mayotte, and the South American coastal territory of French Guiana.
Five others are classified as overseas collectives — which grants them more autonomy and means they pass their own statutory laws. Certain areas are still decided by the French government, however, including foreign policy and defense. These territories include: French Polynesia in the South Pacific, the Polynesian archipelago of Wallis and Futuna, the Caribbean islands of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy, as well as the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon which are located in the Atlantic Ocean near Canada.
The Pacific territory of New Caledonia holds a special status with the French government that allows it even greater autonomy, including holding referendums on independence.
The French Southern and Antarctic Lands, located in the Indian Ocean close to Antarctica, do not have a permanent population but are used by scientific researchers and military personnel.
Clipperton Island, located off of Mexico, is also unoccupied but is under the direct authority of the French government.
The UN classifies New Caledonia and French Polynesia as non-self-governing territories. Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique, Reunion, Mayotte and Saint Martin also fall under the territory of the European Union.
There are a total of 14 British overseas territories — 10 of which are included on the UN’s list of non-self-governing territories. According to the British government, each of the territories has its own constitution, government and local laws. The Queen appoints governors or commissioners to oversee operations in the territory who are responsible for defense, foreign affairs and police.
They include the following territories around the Caribbean Sea: Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat and the Turks and Caicos island group.
Four others are located off South America and close to Antarctica: the Falkland Islands, the Pitcairn Islands, South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands, and the British Antarctic Territory.
The territory of Saint Helena is located in the Atlantic between South America and Africa. Overseas areas also include islands in the British Indian Ocean Territory as well as the Sovereign Base Areas on Cyprus.
Gibraltar, located on the tip of the Iberian Peninsula, is the UK’s smallest overseas territory and the only one that is part of the European Union.
The Netherlands has six Caribbean islands that are regarded by the EU as overseas territories, but which are not classified as non-self-governing territories by the UN:
The three islands of Aruba, Curacao and Sint Maarten are defined as autonomous countries within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
The islands of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba are dubbed special municipalities within the Netherlands and are directly administered by the Dutch government. Dutch citizens on the islands can vote in national elections and European elections.
The residents are Dutch citizens and are European Union citizens, although the islands they live on are not part of EU territory.
Similar to the Dutch territories, the Kingdom of Denmark also contains three autonomous countries: Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands.
The Faroe Islands has been a self-governing territory since 1948 and is not part of the European Union. Home rule was granted to Greenland in 1979.
The EU has a special arrangement with Greenland and regards it as an official overseas country of Denmark. Greenland receives EU funding for sustainable development and has some access to the bloc’s internal market. Its citizens also hold EU citizenship.