By Ricky Browne
Scotland’s ruling party may be pushing for another independence referendum – but the United Kingdom isn’t the only European nation that is facing a potential break-up of its union.
The other nation is France, as one of its island territories will be having a third independence referendum for its territory New Caledonia – which is about 16,000 kilometres away from Paris, situated in the South Pacific Ocean.
And like Scotland, the divide between pro-independence and remain voters seems to be about equal. Momentum appears to be more for independence than not.
The last referendum was held in October last year, when 53 percent voted to remain a part of France. In the previous referendum in 2018, remaining had more support, with 57 percent of the vote.
New Caledonia, a French overseas territory, is an archipelago with the largest island of New Caledonia being of significant size of 18,575 kilometres, but with a population of only 293,000 people. Although a small population, this puts it in the category of independent countries such as Barbados with 287,025 people and one of new Caledonia’s neighbours, Vanuatu, with a population of about 272,000.
Interestingly, several other French possessions – some of which count as overseas departments rather than territories, have similar sized populations. They include French Guinea with 296,700 people, French Polynesia with 278,000 people and Mayotte with 270,000 people.
Two other departments in the Caribbean have larger populations – Martinique with a population of 376,480 people and Guadeloupe with a population of 395,700 people.
UK EMPIRE VS FRANCE
While the British Empire, once the largest in the world, has now diminished to a few postage stamps scattered across the globe, having given independence to all but the smallest of its colonies – France has taken a different approach.
France has held onto several larger territories abroad – and has sought to tighten rather than loosen the bonds between the metropole and its territories. The term colony is outdated, where even the UK has dropped that description for the more politically correct term Overseas Territory.
But France has made some of its former colonies into Overseas Departments – the equivalent of the UK proclaiming the Cayman Islands as an ‘Overseas County” – no different from Cambridgeshire in England or Shetland in Scotland.
As an overseas department, these territories have no more right to seek independence than a department on the French mainland.
France has a total of five of these Overseas Departments: Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean the islands of Reunion and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean and French Guina in South America – where the European Space Agency has its spaceport site.
France also has five ‘Overseas Collectives’ which have some limited autonomy, and the power to create some laws. These territories are: the Caribbean islands of St Martin and St Barthelemy in the Caribbean, the two territories of French Polynesia in the South Pacific, and Wallis and Futama in the South Pacific.
But New Caledonia is slightly different, as it has its own special status and counts as neither an Overseas Territory nor an Overseas Department.
France’s 13th territory is the French Southern and Antarctic Lands, which do not have a permanent population. France also has Clipperton Island off of Mexico, which is also has no population.
A total of about 2,785,000 people live the France’s colonies (for want of a better word).
In comparison, the UK has 14 Overseas Territories, with a total population of about 250,000 people. Bermuda, with a population of about 71,000 people, is the British Overseas territory with the largest population. That compares to France’s Reunion, which has a population of 858,450 people.
On an annual basis the UK government spends about £152 million on its 14 overseas territories – though some, such as the Cayman Islands and the Falkland Islands are self-sufficient.
France gives about 1.5 billion euros to New Caledonia ever year. But the territory has one of the highest per capita incomes in the region of about US$34,000 – putting it behind Australia and New Zealand, but way ahead of most other countries and territories.
It could be that France makes more from New Caledonia than it gives. New Caledonia has a total GDP of about US$9.44 billion.
The territory is one of the largest producers of nickel in the world –with 11 percent of the world’s reserves. Nickel is becoming more valuable due to the shift in the auto industry towards electric cars Tesla has recently agreed to invest in New Caledonia’s nickel industry, as it uses the mineral for its battery production.
That potentially greater future for the nickel industry could make the idea of independence more attractive for New Caledonia, in much the same way that the oil industry might have had an impact on supporters of Scottish independence.
Kanaks are the indigenous people of New Caledonia and are the largest ethnic group – and But they make up less than 50 percent of the population, thanks to a large percent of Europeans from France or of French descent, as well as some immigrants from other French territories such as Wallis and Futana.
The breakdown of ethnic groups is about 39 percent Kanak, 27 percent European, 8 percent from Wallis and Futuna – and with a large segment of 17.7 percent who are unspecified.
Despite the high per capita income rate, unemployment is one of the highest in the world – with 38.4 percent of the youth being unemployed – tanking the territory as having the 13th highest rate in the world. Overall unemployment is less high at about 14.7 percent in 2014.
So could New Caledonia get independence before Scotland? A yes vote looks a little unlikely, as the previous referendum was only seven months ago. But it might be a close call. Meanwhile, old Scotland may not have another referendum at all for now. But pro-independence supporters there must be a little jealous of New Caledonia’s ability to have three referendums in as many years – even if they do end up saying no each time.