Almost everyone who voted in a special referendum in New Caledonia on Sunday rejected independence from France, but most Melanesians, the largest ethnic group on the South Pacific archipelago, boycotted the polls.
Although many analysts had derided the referendum in advance as an exercise that will settle none of the racial and political problems of the territory, the French government hailed the results as a victory for democracy and for France.
The results were about the best that the French government of Premier Jacques Chirac could have expected and fell short of the hopes of the main Melanesian independence party, the Socialist Kanak Front for National Liberation. Yet the results did little more than follow the general lines of the ethnic divisions of New Caledonia.
According to official results, 50,015 Caledonians, 58.6% of the total of registered voters, cast ballots in the referendum. Of those voting, 98.3% cast blue ballots signifying their desire to remain a part of France.
In territorial legislative elections of 1985, a boycott by the Melanesians, or Kanaks as they are known in New Caledonia, kept participation down to 50.12%. Those elections were riven with violence, and the bitter aftermath caused more than 20 political deaths.
With 8,400 soldiers and gendarmes on hand, one for every 10 registered voters, the referendum campaign, for the most part, was calm.
In Paris, Chirac described the results as “a triumphant participation” and announced that he will visit New Caledonia on Thursday to talk with Caledonian political groups about a new law of autonomy that he will offer to the territory.
Chirac called on all Caledonian political movements “to draw the conclusions from this uncontestable choice that has just been expressed democratically.”
Bernard Pons, the minister for overseas territories, said that the results “largely surpassed our most optimistic predictions.” He said “it is a great victory for democracy, for New Caledonia, for France.”
But Lionel Jospin, first secretary of the French Socialist Party, said that the referendum “settles nothing” and warned the government that it must still listen to the Kanak party or “it will put the territory into an impasse.”
The problems of New Caledonia stem from its racial mixture. According to the last census, the Kanaks, the original natives of the islands, numbered 62,000, 43% of the total population. A total of 54,000 whites, 37% of the population, made up the next largest ethnic group. Indians and Polynesians numbered 30,000, 20% of the population.
The Kanaks want New Caledonia to become an independent country run by the Kanaks. The whites, who are concentrated in the capital city of Noumea, want to remain French. Since a relatively large percentage of the Kanaks are below voting age and since the Indians and Polynesians vote usually with the whites, the whites have been able to dominate any election easily.
This creates an odd electoral situation in which the Kanaks, who dominate the archipelago, find themselves constantly outvoted by the electorate of a single city, Noumea. Many analysts, however, believe this will change rapidly because the birth rate of the Kanaks is much higher than that of the whites.
The Kanaks party, headed by Jean-Marie Tjibaou, a former priest, may have to reassess its strategy in the wake of the results. The Kanaks’ failure to keep the boycott at its 1985 level could be blamed partially on such factors as the French government’s refusal to allow them to demonstrate freely against the referendum and on the pressure of the French army, which marched into rural areas preaching to the natives that they had the obligation to vote.
But it was widely believed in France that Tjibaou had the influence to enforce a much stronger boycott than actually took place.
The staging of the referendum has prompted a surprising amount of open conflict between President Francois Mitterrand, a Socialist, and the conservative Chirac. Mitterrand made it clear several times that he believed it was pointless and dangerously provocative to hold such a referendum. But the Chirac government wanted a clear demonstration that the majority of the people of New Caledonia rejected independence.