New Caledonia, a South Pacific archipelago, has belonged to France since 1853. Last week, a referendum on independence brought out more than 80% of the voters, and they chose to stay with France.
There are similarities between this case and that of Puerto Rico, which has belonged to the United States nearly as long as New Caledonia has belonged to France. New Caledonians are all citizens of France as Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States. Puerto Rico’s voters have had multiple opportunities to choose independence in status referenda, and have voted against independence every time, by significant margins. New Caledonia, like Puerto Rico, has had calls for voter boycotts of plebiscites.
But there are also some real differences.
New Caledonia’s vote was close
56.4% of New Caledonia’s voters chose to remain under French rule. Independence and continuing as a territory were the only options, and it was a close vote relative to Puerto Rico votes that included independence.
Independence has never received more than 5% of the vote in any plebiscite on the Island. No Independence Party candidate has ever been chosen for governor of the Island.
New Caledonia can have two more plebiscites under their current agreement with France, and the Independence Party (officially a socialist party) is hopeful that they may yet win independence through this process. Puerto Rico’s Independence Party wants independence as basic right, whether the voters of Puerto Rico want it or not.
New Caledonia has other issues
In New Caledonia, there are two distinct historic populations: descendants of the original Melanesian people of the islands and the descendants of the French and other Europeans who moved to New Caledonia after France took possession of the islands.
In the 1980s, The Melanesian people had a strong independence movement, and France negotiated increasing levels of autonomy for New Caledonia, which was to culminate in a status vote in 1989. In 1984, after years of unrest, violence broke out. There were deaths on both sides, and a new transitional process moving toward this year’s referendum was established.
In general, the Melanesian people voted for independence in the recent referendum and the European people voted to remain a territory of France. People who had lived in New Caledonia for less than 20 years were not allowed to vote, in order to avoid giving political power to recent arrivals.
Puerto Rico wrote a constitution, which Congress approved in 1952. While the constitution did not change the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, Puerto Rico has a high level of local autonomy. There were Nationalist uprisings in Puerto Rico in the 1950s, with casualties, but they did not represent divisions along ethnic lines.
New Caledonia participates in French government
Voters in New Caledonia vote for their president and have representatives in the French parliament. Puerto Rico voters cannot vote in presidential elections and have no voting representatives in the legislature.
While some Puerto Rico leaders talk about negotiating a special relationship with the United States which would not be a territorial relationship nor yet statehood, the U.S. government has rejected this idea repeatedly over the years.
France, on the other hand, has accepted a transitional relationship with new Caledonia which has gradually increased the territory’s autonomy. President Macron said he was “proud” that the people of New Caledonia chose to “stay French,” but the two governments continue to work together toward a new relationship.
Statehood is not an option for New Caledonia
New Caledonia is part of France and has greater political engagement in France than Puerto Rico has in the United States. However, it is 10,500 miles from France, has a population of 268,767, and is in most ways quite separate from France.
Puerto Rico is closer to the U.S. mainland than Hawaii, has a population of over 3 million U.S. citizens, and is deeply involved in the economy and culture of the United States. More people of Puerto Rican origin live in the States than on the Island, and people travel freely and frequently between the territory and States.
Puerto Rico has officially requested statehood. New Caledonia’s options are only independence and continuation as a territory.