This past weekend, New Caledonia held its third and final referendum on independence under the 1998 Noumea Accord. Despite a boycott by pro-independence indigenous Kanaks, which resulted in an overall voter turnout of less than 44%, news agency, Associate Press, reported that “Voters in the French island territory of New Caledonia chose overwhelmingly Sunday to stay part of France”. French President Emmanuel Macron, in a televised national address exclaimed “Tonight France is more beautiful because New Caledonia decided to stay”, while the president of the Southern Province of New Caledonia, Sonia Backes, declared “Tonight we are French and we will stay that way!”
The fact that the boycott is diminished in each of the comments cited above emphasises precisely the key site of struggle in the wake of the referendum: What is the meaning of the boycott? How are we to interpret this non-vote? The two dominant interpretations of the boycott simply reflect the two sides in the conflict: either the boycott has no bearing or impact on the outcome of the referendum (the pro-French interpretation); or, the boycott meant the Kanak wanted a deferment of the vote due to the inappropriate context in which it was being held (the pro-independence interpretation). What both of these interpretations share is an acceptance of the legitimacy of the referendum process itself. As such, the conflict is not about whether or not to have a referendum on independence, but rather when and under what conditions a referendum is deemed legitimate. In such a context, one can imagine a never-ending to and fro over the appropriateness of conditions in which neither side is willing to accept the final outcome if it is not in their favour (indeed, we see this repeatedly in democratic elections the world where one side refuses to concede defeat, claiming rigged elections and so on).
Is there another interpretation of the boycott that enables a way out of this cycle? The possibility of a third interpretation is wonderfully captured by Jose Saramago’s novel Seeing. In the novel, an unnamed county is holding provincial elections. The drama begins when polling day is greeted with pouring rain which lasts the entire morning, leading to few people casting votes. The anxiety of the government and opposition parties is aroused by the prospect of nobody voting. Eventually, the rain clears and by mid-afternoon people stream to polling stations to cast their vote. However, rather than escaping the threat posed by the earlier rain, the government discovers that more than seventy percent of the votes cast were blank. Shocked and dismayed, the government called for a re-election one-week later, only to find that this time eighty-three percent of the votes cast were blank. This mass non-voting put in doubt not simply to the task of identifying a legitimate winner of the provincial elections, but more so to the legitimacy of liberal-representative democracy itself. As one of the book’s characters explains, this act of ‘doing nothing’ presented “a grave threat to the stability not just of the regime but, even more seriously, of the system itself”1
Such acts of silent refusal against the system itself were also initiated by protestors of both the Occupy Movement and Arab Spring. Speaking to the Occupy Movement in New York in 2012, Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek claimed, “All we say now can be taken (recuperated) from us – everything except our silence. This silence, this rejection of dialogue, of all forms of clinching, is our “terror”, ominous and threatening as it should be”. Similarly, Ilan run Wall argues that whilst one of the central slogans of the protestors in Tunsia during the Arab Spring was ‘go away’ or ‘get out’, this was not simply targeted at President Ali himself, but rather was a refusal of the situation as a whole. This refusal to choose between a set of given options in order to reject the ‘system itself’ also finds resonance with Franz Fanon. As Saroj Giri explains, for Fanon, “colonialism is not the name of a series of specific acts of racial discrimination or exclusion from state apparatuses. For him, its the colonial situation”, and therefore the task is to challenge this very situation 2.
In the case of New Caledonia then, we should refuse to seek meaning for the boycott in any particular instances of colonial aggression (such refusing to acknowledge the ongoing impacts of COVID-19, the propaganda campaign against independence instigated by the French government, stacking of the voter roll and so on). Rather, we should insist that the true meaning of the boycott is a rejection of the entire colonial situation. This silent refusal produced by the boycott poses the greatest threat to France. No wonder Macron immediately called for ‘negotiations on new structures’ and pledged to recognise and respect all Caledonians. It is in this way then that Zizek claims, it is “Better to do nothing than to engage in localised acts whose ultimate function is to make the system run more smoothly…Those in power often prefer even a critical participation, a dialogue, to silence – just to engage us in a ‘dialogue’, to make sure our ominous passivity is broken”3.