Frexit for New Caledonia?

Our nearest neighbour, New Caledonia, has a very different political economy. Will it vote for full independence from France in 2018 – also leaving the European Union? 

New Zealand shares a continent with the European Union. Admittedly 93 percent of Zealandia is submerged beneath the Pacific Ocean but at its most north-western are the islands of New Caledonia with a total area about half the size of Canterbury. Technically the country is a department of France and so is the closest part of the EU to us.

There appears to have been no human contact between New Zealand and New Caledonia before the arrival of Europeans. Their tangata whenua are Melanesians; extraordinarily the 40 odd percent of the population who describe themselves as ‘Kanak’ – about 100,000 souls of the 270,00 who live in New Caledonia – had at least 28 (Wikipedia say 40) languages which, so I am told, are ‘mutually unintelligible’. This makes French the unquestionable lingua franca of the islands. In contrast, the Maori language was universal – although there were regional dialects – and even so, it is struggling to survive. But it gives an indigenous unity which neither New Caledonia nor Australia has.

French political theorists talk about ‘colonies of settlement’ in contrast to ‘colonies of exploitation’. New Zealand would be an example of the former, and the British Raj an example of the latter with a handful of Brits governing millions of Indians, exploiting the economy for their and Britain’s benefit.

New Caledonia straddles the two categories. The economy is driven by vast nickel resources – they have about a quarter of the world’s reserves. It is estimated that GDP per head is higher than New Zealand’s, but I suspect – I could not find a comprehensive economic data base – that it is important here to distinguish GDP from GNP. GDP is the value of domestic production in a country’s region; GNP (a.k.a. GNI) is the market incomes of those (‘nationals’) who live in the region. The difference between the two in New Caledonia’s case would be that most of the profits from the nickel sector go offshore.

In any case the ranking may be misleading because the world price of nickel has collapsed since the Global Financial Crisis. The French government is pouring huge subsidies into the sector in addition to giving budget support – some 15 percent of GDP so it is said. Presumably the support is the source of the generous public facilities I saw in Noumea, the capital where two-thirds of the population live.

The very strong nickel sector discourages other tradeable sectors flourishing. Much of the land is unsuitable for agriculture; food accounts for about a fifth of imports (we make a tidy profit here). Tourism is underdeveloped. Aside from the usual Pacific attractions it is a good place to practise your French. I found it expensive.

While foreigners may exploit the nickel, the islands have 70,000 odd who are of French origin and another 20,000 plus who describe themselves as ‘Caledonians’ (much as Pakeha might give their ethnicity as ‘New Zealander’ or ‘Kiwi’ ). There are also about 20,000 who are of ‘mixed race’; the remainder are other Melanesians, Tahitians and some Asians. Many of those of French or Caledonian ethnicity were born in New Caledonia.

New Caledonia is not an independent nation like, say, Samoa but is a department of the French Republic sending two senators and two deputies to the French assembly and voting for the French president. There is considerable devolution but France controls the military and foreign policy, immigration, police and the currency.

Following severe agitation from Kanaks demanding independence, the 1998 Noumea Accord led to constitutional changes which gave the Kanaks greater political control over their lives and set a referendum for 2018 to determine whether the territory remains within the French Republic. That is only two years away.

It is a bit like our approach to Samoa in which, rather than giving them immediate independence, we worked with them to develop the civil institutions which would provide the stable independence they desired. (After our dreadful treatment of their independence movement in the inter-war period, I reckon our postwar record with Samoa was not too bad.)

But the demographics are very different; Samoa’s population is almost entirely Samoan; New Caledonia's is much more diverse. Will New Caledonia choose independence in 2018? Those of French origin I spoke to do not expect the country to vote that way. (However, only those who were living in the territory in 1998 can vote, which dilutes 'French' support.) Many Kanaks take a different view seeing the Noumea Accord as codifying a decolonisation process. I am left with the uneasy feeling that whichever way the vote goes it will be close and leave much unresolved. (A bit like Brexit.)

Does it matter to us? Of course we have goodwill to all, but it is also our nearest Pacific neighbour and we hardly want instability in our backyard.

As a part of my preparation for my trip, I read the relevant chapter in Pacific Ways: Government and Politics in the Pacific Islands edited by Stephen Levine. (The second edition is just out.) Curiosity led me to read others of the 28 country studies. What struck me was the extraordinary variety of governing arrangements. History, colonial experience, demography, geography and the economy have led to diverse governing arrangements. That led me to conclude that is going to take a lot of goodwill to resolve New Caledonia’s future peacefully. Bonne chance!