New Caledonia is a French overseas territory in the Melanesian region of the western Pacific. It consists of several islands, with the outlying, low lying islands, including the Loyalty Islands, dominated by the main island of Grande Terre.
France took formal possession of New Caledonia in 1853 and, by the 1870s, three crucial themes in New Caledonia’s history were already present: a nickel rush, Melanesian opposition to land acquisition and the growth of a European population at the expense of the indigenous Melanesian population, known as Kanaks, who became a minority. The extent of land alienation, the bitterness of the dispossessed and mutual incomprehension between Melanesians and Europeans provoked a sustained and bloody revolt in 1878, the longest and most violent reaction to European colonization in the island Pacific. The eventual triumph of the French emphasized the marginalization of the Melanesians, many of whom were forced onto reservations and subject to the indigénat, a code of ‘native law’. For fifty years the Melanesian population declined, while migration from Asia and Europe emphasized their minority status.
Following European contact in the mid-nineteenth century, Melanesian population numbers fell from about 50,000 to only 28,000 in 1901 and Melanesians were displaced by settlers to reservations on the east coast of the main island (the Grande Terre), though in the Loyalty Islands European settlers were absent. Population numbers began to grow in the 1930s but, as Melanesians were poised to become a majority in the 1960s, a new wave of European and Polynesian migration ensured that they remained a minority.
During the Second World War, New Caledonia became a major US military base employing Melanesians at high wages. The war ensured rising demand for nickel and chrome, and a mining boom was matched by a commercial boom. Melanesians received more adequate wages, the indigénat was abolished, the agricultural sector declined, and the tertiary sector – both public and private – absorbed the bulk of the waged labour force. Melanesians gained voting rights in advance of the indigenous population of other parts of the Pacific.
In the 1930s and subsequently the 1970s, during the nickel boom, there was substantial immigration, initially from Asia (Vietnam and Indonesia) and subsequently from France’s other French Pacific territories, Wallis and Futuna, and French Polynesia. After the boom many migrants left, but Wallisians and Futunans generally remained because of poor development prospects in their home islands. Both Asians and Polynesians have generally supported France and French policy in New Caledonia, though since the 1990s there has been some Wallisian and Futunan support for the independence movement FLNKS. Wallisians and Futunans have found it relatively difficult to obtain employment in New Caledonia – and have higher unemployment rates than Melanesians – but otherwise, like most migrants, have superior access to services than in their home countries. Asians have become established, are well integrated into commercial activities and, unlike Polynesians, are not concentrated in particular urban areas.
After the Second World War Melanesians sought to improve their political, economic and social status. With support from the main churches, they established two associations AICLF and UICALO, to draw Kanaks away from a small but popular community party. The first significant multiracial party, Union Calédonienne (UC), was founded in 1951 and attracted substantial Melanesian support. However, Melanesian frustrations with the slow pace of reform, racial discrimination and continued opposition to their aspirations towards greater autonomy produced a radicalization of politics by the 1970s. Confrontations between militant Melanesians (Kanaks) and the administration focused on land rights, and a number of wholly Kanak parties, based on regional and religious differences, broke away from UC . Kanak university students – influenced by the 1968 student revolts in France and Vietnam-era Third Worldism – also created associations like the ‘Foulards Rouges’ and ‘Groupe 1878’, which merged into the Parti de Liberation Kanak (Palika) in 1976. Palika remains today as one of the largest pro-independence formations.
In opposition to the more radical Kanak parties, fragmented conservative parties consolidated into the Rassemblement pour la Calédonie dans la République (RPCR), a primarily European party. By the time of the 2004 congressional elections, the RPCR’s electoral hegemony had been broken by the establishment of a new anti-independence party Avenir Ensemble (The Future Together) which linked RPCR dissidents and business leaders opposed to Jacques Lafleur, who had dominated the conservative party landscape for decades.
Land issues dominated politics. In many Melanesian reserves land pressures were emphasized by natural population increases which stimulated demands for land reform. Though the speed of restoring land to Melanesians increased in the 1960s and 1970s it still fell short of Melanesian expectations and needs. In the second half of the 1970s Kanaks mounted direct action and occupied alienated land. Increased amounts of land were also purchased and returned to Melanesians, but invariably too little and too late to defuse tension and political pressure, which gradually shifted to demands for independence rather than increased autonomy.
As other parts of Melanesia became independent, and a socialist government took power in France in 1981, there was renewed Kanak hope for independence. However, there was no sign that France intended to move towards independence for New Caledonia. Tension and violence mounted and Kanaks, angry that no electoral reform was proposed and there was no timetable for independence, came together in a new coalition, the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS), to demand independence. The population composition of New Caledonia consistently ensures that as long as Europeans, Asians and Polynesians vote for retention of ties with France, Kanak demands for independence are unlikely to be satisfied through the ballot box. As the Kanak position hardened, the conservative settler (Caldoche) position also became increasingly extremist.
The emergence of FLNKS heralded an escalation of conflict as Kanaks abandoned the unbalanced struggle for constitutional change and embarked on direct and violent action to secure independence. FLNKS boycotted the November 1984 elections, and undertook more direct action, briefly holding the small town of Thio and declaring a provisional government of the Republic of Kanaky, with Jean-Marie Tjibaou, the FLNKS leader, as President. Violent conservative reaction followed and Kanaks and Europeans were killed in various incidents. The military presence was strengthened, right-wing opposition to Kanak militancy grew and, without French or urban support, Kanak militants were unable to gain power. Tentative French proposals for independence in association with France were ignored and the French Prime Minister, Laurent Fabius, devised new proposals which divided New Caledonia into four regions, each with its own council responsible for a range of development planning issues. FLNKS eventually accepted the basis of this plan.
As the French government stepped up its military presence, and the RPCR organized private militias, FLNKS sought to develop a more self-reliant Melanesian society and economy in rural areas, in association with the regional councils as a basis for eventual independence. Schools were established for Kanaks and cooperative agriculture was encouraged in a futile bid to destabilize the economy of Noumea. In the 1985 elections for the regional councils FLNKS won three of the four regions, but RPCR won so comprehensively in the predominantly European Noumea region that it also retained control of the Territorial Congress. A year later, the new Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac, reversed the process of change, freezing the funds of the regional councils and concentrating power in the hands of the Territorial Congress and the French High Commissioner. Starved of finance, FLNKS effectively lost its limited power, but not support, in the regions, the only places where it had legal and constitutional authority, and was reduced to an ineffective minority in the Territorial Congress.
The French conservative government moved forward with plans to hold a referendum on independence in 1987 in the face of socialist opposition and no changes to the electoral roll. FLNKS embarked on a series of pre-referendum protests leading to strong repression from the French riot police. Although the referendum gave overwhelming support to the existing political status, more than 80 per cent of the Melanesian population boycotted it. Intermittent violence continued.
The new French socialist government of 1988 began a process of negotiation and reconciliation resulting in the Matignon Accords of August 1988. Three new regional assemblies were established, with substantial power and financial resources (especially in the least developed, mainly Melanesian, regions in the north and Loyalty Islands), and a referendum on independence was scheduled for 1998 (with an electorate based on those living in the territory in 1988). Despite criticisms by extremists on both sides, the Accords won support at a referendum by the majority of Melanesians, but only 40 per cent of non-Melanesians. Most non-Melanesians thus opposed any notion of independence, however distant, but militant Kanaks were impatient at the long delay, despite initially welcoming a period of peace.
The most violent expression of Kanak opposition to the Matignon Accords was the murder in May 1989 of the FLNKS President, Jean-Marie Tjibaou, and the Vice-President, Yeiwene Yeiwene, by a dissident Kanak activist. The hesitant unity of the FLNKS coalition began to disintegrate. With the death of Tjibaou there was no comparable charismatic leadership, no consistent agenda for a programme of social and economic development leading towards now distant independence and frustration with the structure of development in the regions. Discontent remained and social and economic concerns surfaced again in the mid-1990s with various pro-independence parties arguing that France had provided little support for the socioeconomic advancement of Melanesians, and demanding that structures of independence be in place by 1998.
The problems experienced by FLNKS, following the death of Tjibaou and the signing of the Matignon and Noumea Accords, has created a new context since the violent clashes of the 1980s. Over the last decade, a series of constitutional and electoral reforms has changed the political landscape, with members of the independence movement FLNKS entering the institutions of government, and Kanak independence leaders serving in a multi-party executive alongside their conservative opponents. The experience of managing the Northern and Loyalty Islands provinces has given Kanak leaders experience of administration that they lacked for decades after the Second World War. However there is debate in the nationalist movement over whether the engagement in government post-1988 will ensure community support for independence at the end of the Noumea Accord process, as the grassroots militancy of the 1980s has waned.
Although Melanesians have achieved superior access to education, health and other services, there remain marked disparities between Noumea, where the bulk of the European population live, and the rural areas, and also within Noumea, between Melanesian housing estates and European suburbs. Melanesian incomes, life expectancy and access to services are significantly poorer than those of other groups. Access to employment has scarcely improved from the 1980s, strikes became more common in the 1990s and frustrations over the French presence have scarcely changed. These were rekindled in 1995 with the election of Jacques Chirac as French president, the resumption of nuclear testing in French Polynesia, high unemployment and significant immigration, and many were disappointed by the terms of the Noumea Accord.
Following the Noumea Accord in 1998 the Union Caledonienne splintered with a new party, Federation des Comité de Coordination des Indépendantistes (FCCI), forming a governing coalition with the conservative RPCR. Two other small pro-independence parties, LKS and FULK-UNI (Uni National pour l’Indépendence), also joined the coalition. FLNKS retained two significant parties, the Union Calédonienne and PALIKA (Parti de Libération Kanak), as well as the tiny Rassemblement Démocratique Océanien ( a small Wallisian and Futunan group), and the Union des Progressistes Melanesienne (UPM).
Under the constitution positions within the Congress were to be shared between parties according to their political strengths. FLNKS constantly complained that they were inadequately represented and threatened walkouts. However the 2004 elections brought increased support for pro-independence groups in the North and Loyalty Islands provinces, though it took FLNKS no closer to real power. In spite of attempts to decentralise power and ‘rebalance’ political and economic power between the three provinces, the 2004 assembly elections saw the defeat of all pro-independence politicians in the Southern province, reinforcing the gulf between the capital and the ‘bush’ that the new institutions were supposed to transcend.
Unless there are significant economic and demographic shifts, both of which are unlikely, the ballot box will not be a vehicle for significant political change.
Main languages: Melanesian (about 32 languages), French
Main religions: Christianity (mainly Roman Catholicism and Protestantism)
The last census which identified people by ethnicity, in 1996, showed Melanesians 86,800 (44%), Polynesians 22,800 (12%) and Asians 8,200 (4%).
The Melanesian population consists of more than thirty distinct language groups, some (in the Loyalty Islands) influenced by historical Polynesian migration. Their social organization is similar to those in the Melanesian islands to the north. In contrast with other ethnic groups in New Caledonia, Melanesians are a more rural population, though half the population now live in urban areas.
Asian migrants (mainly from Vietnam, but also from Indonesia) have long been established in New Caledonia and are particularly well integrated in the commercial scene.
Wallisians and Futunans, and a smaller number of migrants from French Polynesia, became a significant minority especially after the nickel boom of the 1970s. Most live in Noumea. They experience a relatively high level of unemployment.
The French colony of New Caledonia began in the mid-nineteenth century as a settler colony centred on pastoralism, and subsequently mining, mainly of nickel. Melanesians were displaced by settlers to the eastern, mountainous part of the Grande Terre. Mining was the basis of the economy through most of the twentieth century until the nickel boom, that coincided with the Vietnam War, ended in the late 1970s and resulted in some diversification into tourism. Mining has remained important and has generated tensions between local Melanesian land owning groups, unions and corporations, and some tense conflicts.
French financial support has weakened mainly Melanesian (Kanak) demands for independence and widened the gulf between urban prosperity and rural poverty. Relative regional and ethnic economic inequalities have worsened in the past decade. Melanesians are incorporated into the periphery of the New Caledonian economy through wages, taxes, pensions, medical assistance and a variety of legal and institutional means, and there is no longer a ‘traditional’ self-reliant Melanesian economy, though many Melanesians continue to work in agriculture and fishing.
During the 1970s there was a growing demand for independence initially centred on the Union Calédonienne party, that later formed an alliance with other pro-independence parties initially into the Front Indépendantiste (FI) and subsequently the Front de Libération National Kanake et Socialiste (FLNKS). In 1982 the FI gained a majority in the Territorial Assembly under its leader, Jean Marie Tjibaou. Demands for change from the FI and FLNKS were resisted and in 1984 the FLNKS proclaimed a Provisional Government of Kanaky. Militant pro-independence Melanesians were known as Kanaks. Considerable violence ensued with 32 people being killed in 1984–8 confrontations, and further violence led to the deaths of 19 Kanak militants on the island of Ouvea in 1988, and eventually the murder of Tjibaou in 1989. Though discontent simmered, largely at the extent of uneven development, the FLNKS has never regained the strength of earlier years and has often been factionalised.
In 1988 the Matignon Accords were signed between France, the FLNKS and the Rassemblement pour Calédonie dans la République (RPCR), the coalition opponent of the FLNKS, led by Jacques Lafleur, which supported more decentralised development with referendum on independence to take place ten years later. Ten years later in 1998 the Noumea Accord replaced the Matignon Accords, and set in train further devolution of authority to New Caledonia over a period of 15 to 20 years when there would be further consideration of independence. Under the Noumea Accord, key administrative powers are being devolved from Paris to Noumea, though New Caledonia will vote on independence only after 2014.
A central feature of the Noumea Accord process is economic, social and political re-équilibrage (rebalancing), to bridge the gap between the southern province, and the rural areas and outer islands where the bulk of the Kanak population live. The introduction of new political institutions under the Noumea Accord – three provincial assemblies, a Congress, a multi-party executive government and a customary Kanak Senate – largely ended armed conflict in the territory, and successful elections were held in 1999 and 2004. The drafters of the Noumea Accord also hoped that the constitutional and electoral reform process would provide institutional mechanisms to (i) strengthen the co-operation of key political formations and encourage ‘moderates’ over ‘extremists’, (ii) address long-standing complaints over voting rights, (iii) reform the electoral roll (iv) promote a spirit of ‘partnership’ in a multi-party government.
While the struggle for independence has been dampened the hold of the more conservative pro-France politicians has also weakened. In New Caledonia, the anti-independence strongman Jacques Lafleur has resigned from Congress and lost the presidency of his party Rassemblement UMP, after the party lost power in May 2004 elections. Leaders of the FLNKS, which has the support of the minority indigenous population, were elected to a multiparty government alongside their former opponents. For the first time in the Oceania region, two women are heading a government: President Marie-Noelle Themereau of the anti-independence party Avenir Ensemble and Vice-President Déwé Gorodé, a Kanak independence activist, writer and poet from the Party of Kanak Liberation (PALIKA).
Increasingly, most New Caledonians and French Polynesians see their future as part of the Pacific region, with increasing ties to the trade, cultural and social life of the great ocean. In September 2004, thousands of Kanaks gathered in New Caledonia’s capital to erect the Mwâ Kâ, a 12-metre high, 3-tonne carved wooden totem to symbolize unity of the Kanak nation and a common destiny for all inhabitants of the French territory.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Sources and further reading
Ali, S and Grewal, A., ‘The Ecology and Economy of Indigenous Resistance: Divergent Perspectives on Mining in New Caledoni’a, The Contemporary Pacific, 18 (2), 2006, 361–392.
Barbancon J et al : Etre Caldoche Aujourd’hui, Ile de Lumiere, Noumea, 1994
Connell, J., New Caledonia or Kanaky? The Political History of a French Colony, Canberra, National Centre for Development Studies, 1987.
Connell, J., ‘New Caledonia: An Infinite Pause in Decolonization?’ The Round Table, 368, 2003, 125–143.
Kircher, I., The Kanaks of New Caledonia, London, MRG report, 1986.
Ounei-Small, S., ‘Kanaky: the ‘peace’ signed with our blood’, in D. Robie (ed.), Tu Galala: Social Change in the Pacific, Wellington, Bridget Williams Books, 1992, pp. 163–79.
United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization Working Paper 2006: http://www.un.org/depts/dpi/decolonization/docs_working%20papers_2006.htm
Vivier, J-L., Mon chemin avec le FLNKS, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1992.
Weingartner, G., The Pacific: Nuclear Testing and Minorities, London, MRG report, 1991.
Bensa, Alban: Chroniques Kanak , Ethnies No.18–19, Autumn 1995
Maclellan, N, Conflict and Reconciliation in New Caledonia: Building the Mwa Ka, State, Society and Governance in Melanesia, ANU, 2005.