After a long history of difference, including civil war, over independence, New Caledonia’s 4 November 2018 referendum began a self-determination process, but ended 30 years of stability under peace accords. Persistent ethnic division over independence revealed by this first vote may well be deepened by May 2019 local elections. Two further referendums are possible, with discussion about future governance, by 2022, amid ongoing social unease. Bitter areas of difference, which had been set aside for decades, will remain front and centre while the referendum process continues.
Key strategic interests are at stake for France, whose Pacific territories add ballast to its global leadership status. The challenge for France is to retain a necessary impartiality over the four-year process, when it wants to hold on to New Caledonia and its other global possessions. The process is being watched by neighbouring Melanesian countries, Pacific Islands Forum governments and the United Nations, all of which have long shaped and monitored New Caledonia’s decolonisation. They maintain an interest, and influence. Australia should encourage France’s constructive, harmonious regional engagement irrespective of New Caledonia’s decision about its future.