Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong visit to New Caledonia a few weeks ago made few headlines. In fact, it barely made the news.
Yet her visit came at a crucial time for the French overseas territory, which is trying to negotiate a viable path to sustainable self-determination that balances the rights of New Caledonia’s indigenous people with the political realities of three failed independence referendums.
Just off the coast of Australia, a new country is still emerging, albeit on a slow path to decolonization in a process led but not ruled by France.
Self-determination is not a straight path
Officially, the subject of sovereignty has been brushed off the table for some time, with the defeat of the most recent referendum on full independence at the end of 2021. A large majority voted to stay with Francealbeit with a very low turnout.
However, the main pro-independence group, the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) refused to recognize the result as most native New Caledonians boycotted the poll due to traditional burial and mourning rituals following a large number of COVID deaths in the community.
Inside, talks have resumed Paris last month on the validity of the third independence referendum in 2021 and on ways to further delegate powers.
Even the fact that the Ministry of Overseas France, which oversees France’s vast remaining colonial possessions, still talks about these things is in stark contrast to the Anglo-Saxon approach to winner-takes-all referenda.
Compare, for example, the government of the United Kingdom refusal to authorize a new independence referendum in Scotland, despite 62% of Scots voting to remain in the European Union during the Brexit vote. Nationalists there argue that circumstances have fundamentally changed since the failure 2014 independence referendum.
In the case of New Caledonia and other former French possessions, it is agreed that issues as complex as indigenous rights take time and patience to explain and implement. And that systems and institutions need time to gain trust.
Before Wong became the first Australian minister once addresses the Congress of New Caledoniashe first met representatives of the Customary Senate, a 16-member indigenous body that consults the government on issues related to the indigenous Kanak people.
As Wong diplomatically put it to her address to the legislature, “New Caledonia is in a complex, historic moment”. The road to decolonization is not a simple matter of restoring power to the land’s traditional owners.
Read more: Why New Caledonia’s final independence vote could lead to instability and tarnish France’s image in the region
A unique power structure
Indigenous Melanesians, who reclaimed the once pejorative term “canaques” and adopted the word Kanak for himself, make up 40% of the population. Another 10% are Polynesians (largely from Tahiti or another French Pacific area, Wallis and Futuna).
Despite a long colonial history – first as a penal colony and later as a destination for French free settlers – New Caledonia’s European population has made up only 40% of the population. Today, about a quarter of the 270,000 New Caledonians identify as European heritage.
Read more: Why New Caledonia’s instability isn’t just a problem for France
But almost as large as the European population are those of mixed heritage. A legacy of colonization, workers from Vietnam, Vanuatu, Algeria and other former French colonies settled in New Caledonia, married and had children. These New Caledonians often hold the balance of power in the political process.
As a result, a complex web of power-sharing structures has emerged over the last 20 years to give a voice to all New Caledonians. There are three provincial governments. One, called South Province, is centered around the capital Nouméa, on the main island and is home to two-thirds of the population and the majority of economic activity.
To balance the disproportionate power of Greater Nouméa, two other provinces, North and Loyalty Islands, were created. Both have a Kanak majority.
This seemingly unwieldy power structure was designed from the bottom up. The Basic Law of New Caledonia, such as enshrined in an amendment to the French Constitutionis called “organic law” because it is not prescriptive, but rather flexible.
For example, while some city councils hold elections for the usual Senate seats, others do not. This is true to the spirit of organic law – that each Kanak tribe can define its own system, under a broad umbrella.
Charting a path forward
The French state has gradually transferred power to New Caledonia since the historic May 1998 Nouméa Agreement. Its predecessor, the Matignon Accord, was essentially a peace deal that ended a sometimes bloody campaign for independence from France led by the Kanak and the Socialist National Liberation Front.
Today, the coalition has 20 of the 54 seats in the quasi-federal parliament that Wong addressed. And in December, Louis Mapou became the first independence politician to hold the position of president of New Caledonia.
The coalition’s mission remains a sovereign, independent New Caledonia or Kanaky (preferred group name for the new country). But given its complex demographics, it has failed to secure a majority in three referenda.
For now, the country remains a French territory, albeit with substantial autonomy. France remains responsible for defence, internal security and currency controls.
But New Caledonia now has many of the rights associated with the state, including a New Caledonian citizenship that sits alongside French. It now has the right to conduct foreign policy and trade negotiations with its neighbors in the Pacific. Japan recently opened a consulate in Nouméa and other countries are stepping up their presence to counter Chinese influence in the region.
This latest devolution of powers made Nouméa an obvious stopping point for Wong, who was also visiting Tuvalu on the same tripfulfilling her pledge to visit every member of the 17-member Pacific Islands Forum in her first year.
In addition, op Djubea-Kapone country, she pledged deeper cooperation with a key regional ally and one of the world’s largest nickel producers. And she gained insight into one of the world’s most ambitious power-sharing structures to emerge in South Africa since the fall of apartheid.