Independence issues in France: the case of New Caledonia and Corsica


While the international news still focuses on the independence of Catalonia and “Brexit”, demands and secessionist movements are currently troubling France and its overseas and territorial collectivities, this time regarding New Caledonia and Corsica.

As the end of the decolonization process begins with the organization of a referendum on self-determination in New Caledonia at the end of 2018, the last Corsican regional elections ended with a sweeping victory for the separatists and autonomists.

New Caledonia: from colonization to full sovereignty

During the turbulent period of the 1980s, the tragedy of the Ouvéa cave caused New Caledonia to be on the verge of a civil war. Twenty gendarmes were then detained in a cave by Kanak independence activists and the intervention of special forces and the National Gendarmerie Task Force (GIGN) led to the death of nineteen Kanaks and two soldiers. These events occurred between the two rounds of the 1988 presidential election which saw Jacques Chirac pitting against François Mitterrand.

Michel Rocard, the new Prime Minister then, began the peace talks that would lead to the Matignon Agreements signed on May 5, 1988, despite the assassination of JM Tjibaou, leader of the FLNKS (Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front), on May 4 1989. These agreements thus constituted a first step towards the independence of New Caledonia, creating three provinces on the archipelago with some autonomy, and brought about a self-determination vote scheduled for 1998.

A second step was taken by the signing of Nouméa Accord on May 5, 1998. Made applicable by a revision of the Constitution voted by Parliament on July 20, 1998, new provisions specific to New Caledonia were included in the Constitution titled XIII. Following Article 76, a referendum was organized on November 8, 1998 to ratify the Nouméa Agreement, in which the “yes” vote would prevail.

French colony from 1853 to 1946, then overseas territory until 1999, the Noumea Accord allows New Caledonia to gain the status of “sui generis” (meaning unique) overseas collectivity, thus derogating the status of local authorities, considerably strengthening its autonomy and the power  transferred from the State to New Caledonia.

“The past was the time of colonization. The present is the time of sharing, of rebalancing. The future is a  time of the identity, in a common destiny”, Preamble of the Noumea Accord

“The time has come to recognize the shadows of the colonial period, even if it was not devoid of light”: Recognizing the shock and the trauma French colonization had on the Kanak population, the preamble of the Noumea Accord, having constitutional value, fully recognizes the Kanak people and identity as they are.

New Caledonia’s Progress to full sovereignty was only attained after a period of twenty years. In fact, the Noumea Accord states in point 5 that a consultation of  New Caledonians will be organized: “the transfer of sovereign power to New Caledonia, access to an international status of full responsibility and the organization of citizenship by nationality will be proposed to vote by the populations concerned” and that “their approval would be equivalent to the full sovereignty of New Caledonia.”

Referendum of self-determination: mediation and trust at the heart of the negotiation

In accordance with the 1988 Matignon Agreements and the 1989 Noumea Accord, New Caledonia will have to decide on its full independence and its accession to full sovereignty in a referendum on self-determination by November 2018. For this purpose, a meeting of the signatory committee of the Noumea Accord was held on 2 November in Matignon and it resulted in a “political agreement” on the composition of the electoral list in the referendum. This is a real challenge for the government since the initial agreement only targeted “historic” inhabitants, who arrived before December 31, 1994 and had 21 years of domiciliation, thus excluding many Kanaks.

Taking the steps of Michel Rocard, the Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, traveling on the archipelago in early December, continued the formulation of this institutional process. Mediation and trust are clearly at the center of the negotiations for the Prime Minister who wants “this unique process in our history to be conducted calmly to allow a lasting and peaceful solution for New Caledonia”, demonstrating an increased willingness of the state to play an active role in this process. Between respect for tradition and diplomacy, a plan on the organization of the referendum seems to be taking form. In fact, it was decided that the Territorial Congress will have to decide soon on a proposal for a date and a question proposed in the referendum. In addition, working groups and a “commission of the wise” (commission des sages) would need to be set up to ensure that the referendum campaign runs smoothly. The next step: The March 2018 meeting of the Signatories Committee in Paris.

Issues and obstacles in the way of Caledonian independence

France is currently facing an unprecedented process in its history: the independence of a former colony that will be the first since Djibouti in 1977 and Vanuatu in 1980.

Although the steps described above only constitute the concrete implementation of the decolonization aspirations written by the author, this consultation should not be underestimated, especially given the energy resources of the archipelago. Indeed, the economy of nickel, the main economic resource of the territory, represents one-fifth of the GDP of New Caledonia and brings about 10,000 jobs. Thus, this sector is particularly strategic in New Caledonia’s institutional process, especially since its market has been very fragile in recent years. The goal of a common strategy is therefore essential.

Another aspect that should not be overlooked: despite apparent prosperity, large disparities are present in New Caledonia as evidenced by the poverty line which is twice as high as in France.

As for Philippe Germain, President of the Government of New Caledonia, he was finally elected after three months of institutional deadlock and three successive failures, a period during which the Congress was forced to deal only with current affairs. This end of crisis in extremis before the arrival of the Prime Minister to the archipelago is the direct consequence of the “shared will to open an extensive dialogue between the independentist and non-independentist formations” in order to better prepare for the referendum deadline in view of putting together the 2018 consultation and ensuring the proper functioning of the institutions.

Corsica: nationalism takes flight

Similar to New Caledonia, the last territorial elections that took place in Corsica on the 3rd and 10th December that aimed to form a single new territorial collectivity from 1 January 2018 drew special attention, particularly because of the coalition between the separatists from “Corsica libera” and the autonomists from “Femu a Corsica”. It was a big victory for the nationalists, with 56.6% supporting the separation.

Interviewed by Agence France Presse (AFP), Thierry Dominici, doctor of political science at the University of Bordeaux and specialist in Corsica, believes that “Independence is in the collective imagination, but the current desire of the Corsicans is to have more autonomy”. This is indeed the ambition of the separatists and autonomists, in this case of Jean-Guy Talamoni and Gilles Simeoni. Already a territorial authority with a special status as specified in Article 72 (1) of the Constitution, the winners of the elections, however, want a great leap forward in autonomy, and in particular to obtain full autonomy of all rights, full exercise of them within three years and a concrete implementation of these rights within ten years. Making the Corsican language a co-official language is also one of the major demands.

Aggressively, Jean-Guy Talamoni asked Paris “to start negotiations very soon”, failing which “mass demonstrations could be organized in case of denial of democracy.” Just like in New Caledonia, the French government must therefore make a gesture to initiate dialogues and to build mutual trust. Minister of the Interior, Gérard Collomb, said he was in favor of “the autonomy of Corsica in the French Republic”.

However, despite this historic victory, it should be noted that the Corsican regional elections were marked by a high abstention rate which reached 47.5%.

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Banner photo: The closing ceremony of the 4th Melanesian Arts Festival, Mwâ kâ. Noumea, New Caledonia 2010, flikr.


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