A Paris court has rejected a request to overturn the results of New Caledonia’s third independence referendum after pro-independence voters boycotted the poll.
- The independence movement contested the referendum result, after boycotting the vote for cultural reasons
- Paris court rules indigenous Kanak mourning period should not have affected ‘sincerity of ballot’
- The court found that the severity of the COVID-19 epidemic in the country had diminished by the time the referendum campaign began
The indigenous Kanak population – which largely favors independence – abstained in the third and potentially final referendum, in which an overwhelming majority voted to remain with France.
Indeed, they have been in a 12-month period of mourning following the spike in COVID-19 cases in September 2021.
At the time, their community bore the brunt of the 279 deaths from COVID on French territory.
The official results of the December 12 poll revealed that although 96.5% of voters rejected independence from France, only 43.9% of eligible voters turned out to vote.
The boycott had a clear impact on voter turnout compared to previous votes. In 2018 and 2020, participation rates almost doubled, to over 80%.
Even before the results were known, pro-independence voices said they would challenge the legitimacy of the result and France’s highest court, the Council of State, has now rejected the offer.
What did the court say?
In the judgment, handed down on June 3, the court said that the declaration of a year of mourning by the Customary Senate (Sénat Coutumier) “was not such as to affect, in itself, the sincerity of the ballot” because COVID had subsided by the time the campaign period began.
After investigation, the court decision indicates that New Caledonia experienced an epidemic peak in September 2021 with an incidence rate of 1,200 infections per 100,000 inhabitants and several hundred victims.
But, he added, “the epidemiological situation improved continuously in October and November with an incidence rate reduced to 48 per 100,000 at the beginning of December and 10 patients with COVID-19 in intensive care”.
The court said that with health indicators improving, including the likelihood that 77.7% of the population had been vaccinated, the health emergency declared on September 11 did not need to be extended beyond the November 15, allowing the campaign period to proceed as planned. from November 29 to December 10.
“Thus, the political parties and groupings authorized to participate in the official campaign … were able to hold public meetings throughout the country, access the public radio and television service, send circulars [letters] voters and put up posters on the electoral offices.
“Finally, a joint circular from the Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Overseas, dated November 15, 2021, gave strict instructions to guarantee the safety of voters during the voting process.”
France does not have compulsory voting, and therefore there is no minimum turnout required for the results to be verified.
Independence votes took place in 2018, 2020 and 2021 due to a 30-year peace agreement called the Nouméa Accords, signed and voted on in 1998 and which was due to end after the final referendum.
It stipulates that New Caledonians can have up to three chances to sever ties with France, as long as a third of Congress agrees with this decision.
The ABC has contacted the Customary Senate for comment.
Independence push unlikely to end despite result
University of New Caledonia associate professor of public law Mathias Chauchat told the ABC the decision was awaited and there was no possibility of appeal.
“There is a form of humiliation which will reinforce the accusations of arrogance by the French state towards the indigenous population,” he said.
“It is now clear that the French state does not want to decolonize and that it will not keep its promises in the Nouméa Accord.
Dr Chauchat said the indigenous Kanak population would continue to demand independence and that the three failed attempts “do not change anything”.
He expected a reaction from France.
“France will try to open up the electorate to French immigrants to drown out the Kanak claim by numbers,” he said.
“France continues to push for a French policy of colonization in New Caledonia in order to maintain its sovereignty over the country.
“This opening of the ballot is incompatible with civil peace in New Caledonia.”
A team from the French Senate is due to travel to New Caledonia at the end of June.
“It will be an opportunity for initial discussions,” said Dr Chauchat.