New Referendum is Likely
Despite the defeat of the independence supporters, the issue of separation from France is not yet closed, experts believe. The Noumea Accord allows the New Caledonians to organize another vote in two years – an opportunity that the independentists will seize, Benoit Trepied, a researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research, told Sputnik.
"The results absolutely do not close the question of independence. The independentists, even though they’ve lost, came out from this referendum strengthened. They will ask for a second referendum, previewed in the 1998 Noumea Accord. So this is not a subject for discussion. They need one-third of the New Caledonia Congress deputies to call a referendum, and the Kanaks, the independentists, represent slightly less than a half of them," the researcher explained.
Polls conducted prior to the independence referendum suggested that only some 30 percent of the New Caledonians would vote in favor of separation from France. However, experts pointed out a very strong mobilization in the Sunday vote, which led to a more impressive result and showed a balance of powers in the Pacific territory.
"It is clear the result for a ‘yes’ can only ignite the supporters of independence to propose other referendums," Barthelemy Courmont, the research director for Asia-Pacific region at the Iris-France think tank, told Sputnik.
The final voting results showed that 56.4 percent of New Caledonia’s residents on Sunday opted to remain part of France. Another 43.6 percent voted in favor of independence.
Impessive Results for Independentists
The result of the referendum, which almost gave parity to the two opposing camps of loyalists and independentists, left French politicians unable to play the majority card and will lead to more compromise, experts believe.
"Political commentators did not expect to see such a strong mobilization of the population and that there will be such a participation rate. And this high participation rather impacted the vote in favor of a ‘yes.’ The big share of people who once thought they would abstain from voting or who were not on the voting lists were from the independentist Kanaks," Trepied underlined.
At the same time, according to Gourmont, the referendum results are "far below the expectations of the loyalists" and this reflected the long-existing split between the south and the north of the territory, but the 1980s violence nevertheless was unlikely to be repeated.
"It was a very respectful campaign. There is no risk to see the crystallization of the opposition, besides the clear discrepancy of the southern regions which massively voted ‘no,’ and northern regions where the ‘yes’ prevails. This division was known long before the referendum and will remain, but it does not mean the return of violence," the Iris-France research director said.
Economic Independence Possible
But will a complete independence from France be economically feasible for the Pacific archipelago? Some 30 percent of its public spending is ensured by France. The territory struggles with unemployment which can reach 56 percent depending on the region. However, experts believe that natural resources will allow New Caledonia to become economically independent.
"New Caledonia has about one-quarter of the world’s nickel reserves, so this is a very rich territory. All the fight of the independentists for more than 30 years now is aimed at occupying an important place in this nickel industry – not for the state to exploit the resources and for the wealth to go elsewhere, but to construct plants, manage them on the ground and have more additional value within the country which will enable financing their independence," Trepied, who is also a researcher at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS), explained.
The expert added that New Caledonians have already managed to become important players in the international mining industry.
"At the international scale, the New Caledonians and the Kanaks, in particular, succeeded in becoming indispensable actors of the international mining sector, which could seem unusual for a little people of some 200,000, who are often pictured as primitive and savage, but they are very strong in global capitalism," Trepied underlined.
Troubled Asset for France
New Caledonia is a strategically important territory for France. It ensures France’s presence in the Pacific and remains one of the country’s most attractive travel destinations.
"The resources are ample in New Caledonia and represent without doubt an important asset for France. It is also an Exclusive Economic Zone, covering more than 1.4 million square kilometers [540,000 square miles], which ensures an important presence for France in this zone," Courmont noted.
But the region became a problem for the French authorities in the 1980s when ethnic tensions and segregation policies against the indigenous population resulted in violent clashes. In the 1990s, New Caledonia got back on the UN decolonization list, which was a "national shame" for France, Trepied explained.
"The most important thing for France is for New Caledonia not to become a battleground again. If there is a diplomatic and geopolitical importance of New Caledonia, it is as much, or even more, in the image which will enhance France if it manages to organize a peaceful decolonization, unprecedented on the international scene," the researcher added.
Views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the scholars and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.