The government’s planned election system improvements in Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia, were modified by French senators, some 17,000 kilometers away. They are scheduled to be formally voted on on April 2. The elections, which are scheduled for mid-December, are significant for New Caledonia as the regional provinces control a sizable share of the territory’s authority. The plans put out by the national government to increase the number of voters in provincial elections have so far proven to be a contentious issue in the debate over the archipelago’s future status.

Importance of electoral reform

The next elections would be available to anybody who has lived in New Caledonia for at least 10 years, while they are now only open to specific individuals who have been residents of the islands since before 1998, as well as their descendants. The proposal, which calls for a modification to the French Constitution, may provide an additional 11,000 individuals the right to vote. Almost 25% of voters have been kept out of elections due to the more than 25-year-old electoral roll freeze. This might potentially make the next vote unlawful. 

After a contentious independence vote in December 2021, two years later, New Caledonia’s political destiny is still up in the air. The pro-French conclusion of the referendum was rejected by all independence groups, which boycotted it since France disregarded their request to postpone the vote because to Covid-19 fatalities in their local communities. They desire a second vote held under international supervision.

Reasons for electoral reform

The Union Calédonienne (UC), the oldest independence party founded on indigenous people, has refused to take part in many French attempts to call for negotiations on future governments, which have resulted in failure. In order to securely establish French sovereignty over the area, loyalist parties and France saw the referendum process as having been completed. The 1998 Noumea Accord, which outlined a framework for self-determination following years of conflict, culminated in the referendum. 

However, a major Noumea Accord clause restricting voting eligibility in local elections to long-term residents basically, those with 10 years of residence until 1998 remains divisive in light of the forthcoming May local elections. The indigenous Kanak people were worried that European settlers would outnumber them, so they imposed this ban. The voting limitation is opposed by loyalists who point out that thousands of voters are now excluded (mostly non-Kanak, probably pro-France, immigrants since 1998). Eliminating the restricted electorate is opposed by all independence parties.

Addressing historical grievances

French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has often threatened to impose a solution—such as completely eliminating voter eligibility restrictions if all parties are unable to come to an agreement and communicate. This is meant to spur debate. Following his condemnation of non-participation in talks as a recipe for violence, French President Emmanuel Macron visited Noumea in July 2023 and put forth a detailed timeline that included a constitutional amendment by early 2024, at the very least regarding voter eligibility, to allow for the May 2024 provincial elections to be held with a larger electorate than in the past. 

The leaders of the independence fled a meeting that Macron called and rejected his proposal as being on Paris’ schedule, not theirs. Both the independence party Palika (who attended the conference but did not participate) and the UC (who did not) rejected a French draft text that was meant to be discussed in a subsequent meeting in September in Paris as “unacceptable.” Loyalists didn’t exactly seem much more excited.

Multi-Ethnic representation

Macron, sensing a deadlock, had asked the State Council, France’s highest administrative adjudicator on government powers, to examine whether the electoral rules outlined in the Noumea Accord could be changed with straightforward legislation or if it would be necessary to postpone local elections in order to effect the changes or reach a broad political consensus. The Council approved its judgment on December 7th, but the administration didn’t publicly announce it until December 26th. 

The reason for the delay could have been because Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu, who had organized the contentious third referendum in his capacity as Overseas France Minister, convened a regional defense ministers’ meeting in Noumea the same week, putting the city in the public eye. Supporters of Kanak independence demonstrated in the streets at the time against the “militarization” of New Caledonia and the “bulldozer” approach used by the Macron administration on voter eligibility. During that same week, Darmanin was forced to postpone a visit to discuss the future of New Caledonia due to the UC’s persistent refusal to take part.

Conclusion

In conclusion, The Council took issue with the Noumea Accord’s ambiguous language about voter eligibility, which it said, if taken literally, would eventually eliminate the electorate (referring to eligible voters as “children” rather than “descendants”). The statement stated that the signature partners had not meant for this clause to be applied indefinitely, which would have violated the ideals of equality and universal suffrage.