For the first time in over two decades, the Pacific island territory of New Caledonia has a government made up mostly of pro-independence politicians, a historic turnover that analysts say could edge it toward becoming independent from France.
New Caledonia's executive body is expected to select a new president this month, a move made necessary after it collapsed when five pro-independence politicians from the French territory quit in February amid civil unrest over ownership of some of New Caledonia's immense nickel assets.
The Melanesian territory, a collection of islands some 750 miles off the eastern coast of Australia, is the world's fourth-largest producer of nickel — a key component of lithium batteries used in electric cars. The territory's nickel industry is dominated by foreign companies, with France's Eramet conglomerate the largest nickel mine owner.
But there's more at stake than just nickel, say analysts. New Caledonia is one of France's 14 overseas territories, all of which play a crucial part in its global economic and military maritime dominance. Because of its territories, France has the world's second-largest maritime Exclusive Economic Zone — the coastal waters a country claims for exclusive rights for economic activities such as fishing and drilling — after the U.S.
In the Pacific, New Caledonia — along with French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna — is pivotal to France's standing as a main Western player in a resource-rich and strategically important region that has seen growing Chinese influence in recent years.
When a pro-independence coalition known as FLNKS (the French acronym for the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front) emerged with a majority for the first time since 1999 after snap elections on Feb. 17, it marked a "significant turning point," says Nic Maclellan, who covers New Caledonia for Islands Business magazine.
This government change comes at a pivotal time in a long struggle for independence defined by deep racial divisions. Indigenous Kanak make up about 41% of New Caledonia's nearly 289,000 people; those of European descent are about 24% of the population. Should a new president come from the pro-independence coalition — whose two leading candidates are Kanak — that person would be the first Kanak president in nearly 40 years, at a time of unprecedented popular support for independence.
After a period of deadly civil unrest in the 1980s, New Caledonia and France inked agreements in 1988 and 1998 in an attempt to bring peace between the indigenous people and the French military. In the 1998 Nouméa Accord, named for New Caledonia's capital, France promised it would grant increased political power to the territory and to Kanaks over the next 20 years. But every New Caledonian government since then, says Maclellan, has been run by parties loyal to France, with presidents of European descent.
If the new president is Kanak, he says, "both the symbolism and substance of having an indigenous Kanak president really highlights this decolonization process, and will worry and indeed anger some conservative supporters of the French Republic, who believe that the independence movement should not take the lead."
Momentum toward independence?
Ziad Gebran, the press officer for French Minister of the Overseas Territories Sébastien Lecornu, tells NPR that France will "respect the institutions of New Caledonia" and "try not to interfere" as it forms a new government and chooses a new president.
Should the new government organize a third and final independence referendum before the Nouméa Accord lapses in 2022, Gebran says France will respect the result.
"We accepted 30 years ago to launch this process, so now we are obliged to accept the vote of the New Caledonians," Gebran says.
Alexandre Dayant, a research fellow at the Sydney, Australia-based Lowy Institute think tank, predicts the New Caledonia government will try to organize a referendum as late as possible, to try and ensure as many pro-independence votes as possible from a growing native-born population.
The first referendum took place in 2018 and was preceded by a visit from French President Emmanuel Macron. He came to "support the process," Dayant says, but also to remind New Caledonia's voters of France's influence in the territory — including over a billion dollars in subsidies a year, without which the pro-France camp fears the territory's economy could collapse.
Last year, in a second referendum, nearly 47% of New Caledonians voted for independence. The results made clear that pro-independence momentum was building, even outside the Kanak population, Dayant says.
Eyes on New Caledonia
Analysts say any new referendum in New Caledonia will be closely monitored by its Pacific neighbors big and small.
French Polynesia, a group of more than 100 islands including Tahiti, has had its own self-determination movement for decades. Independence supporters there are watching New Caledonia with particular interest "because whatever happens in New Caledonia will impact us, too," says Michel Villar, a political adviser for Tavini Huiraatira, French Polynesia's main pro-independence party.
He says his party have been pushing for a similar path to independence as New Caledonia's. But French Polynesia's relationship with Paris is different, marred by tensions over past French nuclear tests that damaged the environment and exposed local residents to radiation.
Villar and other independence supporters believe France tried to convince world powers to keep French Polynesia off the United Nations Special Committee for Decolonization's list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, known informally as the "decolonization list." Being on this list (French Polynesia was reinstated in 2013 after being off it since the 1940s) means that France must recognize and assist the territory in developing a path toward self-determination.
Former territories on the list include the nations of Chad, Madagascar and Vanuatu.
Villar accuses France of continuing to impede French Polynesia's ability to move forward in the independence process, but Gebran, the French government spokesperson, says there's no comparison between the situations of New Caledonia and French Polynesia.
"The Polynesian institutions ... are not demanding to have independence," he says. "It's a minority of political parties that are demanding — contrary to the New Caledonian Congress, who are voting every two years for a referendum on independence."
France's "difficult role"
France has "traditionally seen its territories as simply a part of France," but only in the last 20 years has it shown a real appreciation of their strategic value, says Denise Fisher, a former Australian diplomat who served in Nouméa and is now a visiting fellow at the Australian National University Center for European Studies.
"France would not be the same without New Caledonia," Macron told local dignitaries, RFI reported in 2018. He repeated a warning about a "new hegemony" in the region, seen as a reference to China, which has become more assertive and influential in the Pacific.
From military bases in the West Indies and Indian Ocean to research facilities in the Pacific that bolster France's scientific and technology capacity, France's ability to maintain overseas territories underpins its status as a European leader and position as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, says Fisher. Pacific assets give it "a place at the table of dealing with China," as issues such as trade and security create mounting tensions between Beijing and Washington, she says.
France's relationship with the United States is "all enhanced by France's sovereign presence in the South Pacific," Fisher says. "So they want to hang onto it."
France has "a difficult role" right now, she says, because it wants to be impartial in implementing promised referendums in New Caledonia — even as the economic and geopolitical stakes grow higher.
An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Michel Villar as Michel Villa.