New Caledonia elects first pro-independence president 5 months ahead of referendum

Kanak politician Louis Mapou leads National Union for Independence party

Louis Mapou (centre) presides over the meeting of the government of New Caledonia.
Louis Mapou (centre) presides over the meeting of the government of New Caledonia. Author: Gouvernement de la Nouvelle-Calédonie
Louis Mapou became, 8 July, the first pro-independence president in New Caledonia’s history, after an absolute majority of members of the islands’ cabinet voted for him. If no new government crisis bursts, Mapou will be the New Caledonian president during the third independence referendum, to be held on 12 December.

Mapou is the leader of the National Union for Independence (UNI), one of the two main alliances of pro-independence parties in New Caledonia. An activist of the pro-independence left during the 1970s, Mapou (62) has presided over several mining companies, which is one of the most important —and controversial— sectors of the local economy.

Mapou, who will also be the first indigenous Kanak to hold the post, received the votes of all six pro-independence members of the cabinet (from the UC-FLNKS and UNI parties). The other five members, from French unionist parties, did not support him. Four of them voted for former president Thierry Santa.

The New Caledonian government operates under a consociational system in which both pro-independence and unionist parties must be represented. Until 2021, the cabinet had always had a unionist majority, reflecting the unionist majority in the New Caledonian Congress, the body responsible for picking up cabinet members. In February, however, the Congress elected a pro-independence government majority for the first time after L’Éveil Océanien, a moderately unionist party, joined forces with the UC-FLNKS and UNI, giving the pro-independence bloc 29 of the 54 seats in the Congress.

Towards third referendum on independence

Mapou has been elected just five months before New Caledonia’s third independence referendum, to be held on 12 December, the date chosen by the French government. Pro-independence parties wanted the vote to take place at the end of 2022.

In the two previous referendums, voters rejected independence from France. In 2018, 56.7 per cent voted “no”; in 2020, the figured dropped to 53.3 per cent.

The pro-independence parties believe that the difference between “no” and “yes” votes will continue to narrow progressively and, for this reason, they sought the referendum to be held next year rather than in 2021.

The holding of the three referendums was foreseen in the Nouméa Accords, signed in 1998 by the French state and the main parties in New Caledonia. The Accords established an autonomous system of government for the island territory and created a New Caledonian citizenship —the only case in which the French Republic admits the existence of a citizenship supplementary to the French.

What happens next?

Whether the “yes” or “no” vote wins, a period of talks between the French state and the New Caledonian parties will start after the referendum, lasting until 30 June 2023 at the latest, according to French Minister of the Overseas Sebastien Lecornu. That transition period will culminate in a new referendum. If this year’s December referendum is won by the pro-independence side, the 2023 vote will ask on the Constitution of the new independent state and, if necessary, on what link it should maintain with France. If the “no” vote prevails for the third time, the referendum will ask on New Caledonia’s future status within France, which in theory will have to be negotiated between the French state and the New Caledonian parties.

In this case, according to a recent poll, opinions in New Caledonia are quite divided, with two options being preferred: an autonomous status with extended powers, or the creation of a federated state with France.

Controversial issues remain to be solved, such as what will happen to the current electoral corpus for referendums —which excludes Europeans who arrived in New Caledonia after 1994— and what will be the future of the territory’s inscription on the UN List of Non-Self-Governing Territories.