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Electoral law change approved for New Caledonia referendum

The French National Assembly has approved a change to the electoral law for New Caledonia for this year's independence referendum.

The change was approved by 537 to two votes, a month after the Senate overwhelmingly voted for it.

The new law will allow for the enrolment of an additional 11,000 people following last November's political agreement on the make-up of the restricted roll to be used for the plebiscite.

The referendum will be held on 4 November.

Next week, the signatories to the Noumea Accord will have their last meeting in Paris at which the exact referendum question is expected to be finalised.

The Noumea Accord stipulates that voters will decide if the territory should assume full sovereignty.

After decades of campaigning by separatists seeking to break away from France, the New Caledonia congress, the local legislative authority, has agreed to hold the vote on 4 November.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, and his prime minister, Édouard Philippe, have said they hope the territory, will choose to remain part of France. Last year, Macron said France’s presence was “necessary to guarantee peace and development”.

However, a 20-year agreement signed between Nouméa and Paris in 1998, which gave the archipelago greater autonomy, paved the way for a self-rule referendum to be held by the end of 2018 at the latest.

The wording of the referendum has to be agreed and voting will be limited to long-term residents.

If a majority of New Caledonia’s 275,000 inhabitants, 45% of whom are indigenous Kanaks who support autonomy, vote for independence, it will be the first French territory to break away since Vanuatu did so in 1980.

In the mid-1980s, up to 70 people are believed to have been killed in clashes between independence seekers and the police and military, and in other outbreaks of violence between the Kanaks and the nationalistic Europeans on the islands. Both sides remain bitterly divided, with wealthy European-born residents accusing young Kanaks, who are among the archipelago’s poorest citizens, of ongoing burglaries and violence.

The territory is home to a quarter of the world’s known nickel, a key component in the manufacture of rechargeable batteries, coins and stainless steel.

The British explorer Capt James Cook named New Caledonia in 1774 after seeing the islands from his ship and remarking that they reminded him of Scotland. In 1853, Napoleon III claimed the territory for France and it became a penal colony. New Caledonia currently sends two MPs to France’s national assembly and two senators to the senate.

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