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New Caledonia – Towards Independence

30 September 1998

By Yves Jardin

On 6 July 1998, the French National Assembly and Senate voted to approve the Nouméa Accords of 21 April 1998 – which were made between the pro-independence FLNKS of New Caledonia, the pro-union with France RPCR and the French government. A process of peaceful decolonization has been set in motion.
The colonial era

New Caledonia – east of Australia – was ?discovered? and named in 1774 by one of Cook?s expeditions. France officially took possession of the territory in 1853. However, the islands were not empty, they were populated by an aboriginal people – the Kanaks.

As a result of colonization, the Kanaks were dispossessed of their land and put into ?reserves?. Revolts in 1878, 1917 and 1922 were brutally repressed. Their very survival was in question. Due to massacres, illness, and the dispossession of their land, the Kanak population fell from 50,000 in 1855 to 28,000 in 1915.

Meanwhile, colonization grew, with the creation of plantations and then with the exploitation of nickel. Populations were then brought in from Asia, Europe and the Pacific Islands. Today, the Kanaks represent just 44 per cent of the population, or almost 87,000 people. Europeans make up one third of the population, and Asians and Pacific Islanders represent over one fifth of the population.

The anti-colonial struggle

For many years the Kanak people had no political rights. (However, this did not prevent their forced conscription in the two world wars.) It was not until 1957 when all Kanaks received the right to vote.

The call for independence came in 1969 with the creation of the marxist Foulards Rouges. In 1979 a pro-independence front obtained 35 per cent of the vote in the elections for a territorial assembly. But two years later, Pierre Declercq, leader of an anti-colonial party, was assassinated.

In 1984 a new status of autonomy was agreed for New Caledonia, the FLNKS was created and a provisional government was proclaimed by Jean-Marie Tjibaou. However, this was followed by an ambush, in which 10 FLNKS members were assassinated. (Those held to be responsible were acquitted in October 1987.)

In December 1986 the United Nations confirmed New Caledonia?s right to independence. Yet, in a referendum in New Caledonia in September 1987, more than 98 per cent – the electorate of predominantly European origin – voted to remain in the Republic of France; 41 per cent abstained. In May 1988 tension rose. After several gendarmes were taken hostage, there was an attack on Ouvéa – 19 Kanaks were killed, several allegedly after they had surrendered.

In June the Matignon Accords were signed between the French government, the FLNKS and the RPCR, and approved in a referendum by 80 per cent of the electorate. But in May 1989, the President and Vice-President of the FLNKS were assassinated. In December 1989 an amnesty for offences committed before August 1988 helped to calm the situation. A process of economic and social decolonization began.

The 1998 Accords

The Matignon Accords gave New Caledonia a new status, as defined in law in November 1988. The executive was a High Commissioner, nominated by the government; assisted by a Consultative Committee, consisting of Presidents and Vice-Presidents of New Caledonia?s Provincial Assemblies; and a territorial Congress, (formed of those elected in the Provincial Assemblies). A Consultative Council was formed on New Caledonia?s customary laws. The powers accorded to the territory were increased, along with economic and social development.

A referendum on self-determination was to be held in 10 years? time – i.e. 1998. This has not taken place. The RPCR was not keen and those who wanted independence were well aware that the Kanaks were a minority in the population, and that the outcome of a referendum on self-determination was far from certain.

Long negotiations ended in the Nouméa Accords of 21 April, signed 10 days after the Stormont Agreement in Northern Ireland. In both cases this entailed attempting to arrive at a peaceful solution which respected the rights of both communities – in this case the Kanaks and the descendants of the colonizers.

These Accords were approved by the RPCR and the FLNKS. They must be approved by a referendum in New Caledonia by the end of 1998.

While New Caledonia now has enlarged powers, some powers are shared with France and some remain with France. The Noumea Accords have established a period of progressive autonomy for 15-20 years, after which a referendum on self-determination will be held. This will allow for the passage to independence, with the full transfer of powers to New Caledonia, and aims at peaceful coexistence between the different communities.

A wider significance

These Accords have been reached within the framework of a centralized state which does not recognize minority group rights. For the first time, a part of the French Republic will have its own legislative and regulatory capability, with its own citizenship, complementary to the French one, and with languages – other than French – having official language status.

The Nouméa Accords are likely to be written into the constitution. They represent a break with France?s historical traditions – in particular, France?s traditional refusal to recognize ?group rights?. France?s remaining colonies and ?overseas departments? have already called for increased power, and groups such as the Democratic Union of Brittany feel that this has also boosted their claims for autonomy.

Yves Jardin is a writer on international affairs and an historian. He is also a member of the leadership group of the Breton Democratic Union.

This article was first published in the 52nd edition of our ‘Outsider’ newsletter on October 1, 1998.