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  • New Caledonia
  • Mathias Chauchat (bio)

The year 2018 was very political. It was the year of the vote on full sovereignty, which took place on 4 November after three decades of postponement. A massive “no” to independence [End Page 527] was generally expected. However, the big surprise of the year was that the “no” result was neither clear-cut nor massive. It was quickly interpreted by the independentist parties as a “yes, maybe” or a “yes, soon.”

The year had an unusual start following a visit from Edouard Philippe, prime minister of France, in December 2017 and a general policy statement from Philippe Germain, president of the Government of New Caledonia, on 17 December 2017. The first highlight of 2018 was a visit from Emmanuel Macron, the president of the French Republic, from 3 to 5 May. He highlighted New Caledonia’s sometimes volatile past by going to Ouvéa, the scene of the 1988 hostage crisis, and to the Tjibaou Cultural Center in Nouméa, where he handed over to the Government of New Caledonia the two acts that had formalized French possession of the territory on 24 and 29 September 1853 in the name of Napoleon III. In his speech at the Théâtre de l’Île to the Government of New Caledonia, elected officials, customary chiefs, representatives of civil society, and economic leaders, Macron reaffirmed that he “would not take sides. It is not up to the Head of State to take part in a question which is posed only to Caledonians” (Europe 1 2018). Even still, he called on Caledonians “not to go back on history” and stated that France “would not be the same without New Caledonia.” It was a way to reaffirm—without saying too much—a personal preference for New Caledonia to remain a part of France. Before this presidential visit, on 27 March 2018 in Paris, Prime Minister Philippe announced the abrupt and dividing question to be posed at the referendum on independence in New Caledonia on 4 November 2018: “Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?” The answer was either “yes” or “no.”

Undoubtedly, the well-organized polls were the main success of the referendum, along with the overall peaceful and respectful political atmosphere. The referendum control commission ensured the regularity of the ballot. The polls were monitored by 250 delegates spread throughout the polling stations, along with about fifteen United Nations (UN) observers. The referendum cost the French government more than €5 million (€100 = us$112), or about 30€ per voter. By way of comparison, the average cost of an election in metropolitan France is 3€ per voter.

However, the answer to the question was hard: a record turnout and an obvious ethnic division of the country between the “yes” votes of Kanak and the “no” votes of the “others.” To an abrupt question, a harsh answer.

The turnout was exceptional at 80.63 percent. By contrast, for the last provincial elections in 2014, the voter turnout was only 69.95 percent. The only comparative turnout was that for the vote on the Nouméa Accord in 1998, which was 74.23 percent. The absolute record was achieved in 2018 in the Northern Province with 86.01 percent. The country voted 56.70 percent to 43.30 percent to remain in France (Government of France 2018), a long way from the predicted 70 percent to 30 percent (Quid Novi 2018). Olivier Houdan, a New Caledonian historian, spoke of “the victorious defeat of the independentists” (2018). [End Page 528]

Ethnic and cultural bias in the opinion polls, along with an excessive imbalance in the means of communication between those voting “yes” and those voting “no,” deluded the country. The incredible mobilization of Kanak youth, with long lines of young voters often holding Kanaky flags in front of the polling stations, struck all the observers. The intergenerational transmission of the fight for independence has undeniably been achieved.

The electorate for the sovereignty vote was a little different from the one for provincial elections, but it was the subject of fewer quarrels. The representatives of the Kanak people nevertheless did not agree that the principle of “one...