New Caledonia is one of the last territories in the Pacific region to remain in France’s possession after decolonization. Over the last decades, the mood for secession has been strong in New Caledonia, and its independence movement has seen some success. The French government is trying to hang onto New Caledonia, but this task seems extremely complex, and few are willing to predict how long this territory will remain French.
At present, New Caledonia comprises the large island, Grand Terre (which is sometimes referred to as New Caledonia), where the capital, Nouméa, is located; the Loyalty Islands; the Chesterfield Islands, and a number of islands in the Coral Sea (in Melanesia, south west of the Pacific Ocean). New Caledonia shares maritime borders with the economic zones belonging to Australia, the Republic of Vanuatu and the Republic of Fiji. The famous British explorer, James Cook, was the first European to discover the island of Grand Terre in 1774. He dubbed it New Caledonia, and the name later spread to the entire region.
In 1853, France laid its claim to New Caledonia and converted it into its prison. In the second half of the 19th century, more than 20,000 French convicts were sent there to serve their sentences. In addition, the French brought Melanesian slaves from the Loyalty Islands and Vanuatu to Grand Terre to work on plantations and mine nickel.
It is worth noting that nickel is a valuable ingredient in stainless steel, and in other alloys, as well as manufacture of electric appliances. The New Caledonia islands are home to 10% of all the known nickel deposits, and currently, it is the 5th largest producer of nickel after Russia, Indonesia, Canada and Australia. Exporting nickel is the main source of revenue for New Caledonia, and SLN, a subsidiary of the French company Eramet, is a leading enterprise in nickel mining. Hence, it is not surprising that France does not wish to part with New Caledonia.
Key supporters of the New Caledonia independence movement are indigenous inhabitants of the islands, referred to as the Kanaks (they were called so by Europeans, before the arrival of colonizers these ethnic groups had no common name). In the 19th century, the Kanak natives experienced many hardships at the hands of Europeans. The first sailors, traders and missionaries, who appeared on the islands in the first half of the 19th century, brought with them dangerous diseases, which the Kanaks had not been exposed to previously. They suffered terribly from such illnesses, as they lacked immunity to these. The death of these natives from diseases led to several expulsions of British and French missionaries from the island territories by the Kanaks.
After French rule had been established, the indigenous populations of New Caledonia experienced oppression on many fronts. The French drove them from their native lands and into “reservations”, whose territories were continuously reduced. Once the natives were in these fairly small areas with limited resources, the Kanak tribes were pitted to compete against each other, which resulted in military conflicts among them. The Kanaks were forced to work and even had to pay taxes. Tribe chiefs were appointed by French administrators. In the meantime, colonizers continued to infect local residents with diseases and actively supplied them with alcohol. The Kanaks rebelled on a number of occasions against French rule, with the biggest uprising taking place in 1878, under the leadership of the chieftain Ataï. However, the French leadership skillfully used animosity among the tribes to defeat them, and, as a result, Ataï was killed by other Kanaks. The same thing happened during the rebellion in 1917.
As a consequence of all of this, the Kanak population decreased from approximately 80,000, at the time New Caledonia was discovered by Europeans, to around 27,000 in 1921. France also brought other French nationals, as well as workers from Asia and other Oceania regions to the islands. A many-fold increase in the amount of nickel mined led to a new migration wave in 1971. As a result, nowadays the Kanak people account for only 40% of New Caledonia’s population.
In the 1980s, the Kanaks staged numerous protests, which were accompanied by riots and attacks on New Caledonia’s residents of European descent. In 1984, the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) was established under the leadership of Jean-Marie Tjibaou, who was fighting for the creation of an independent state for the Kanak people. At the end of the 1980s, New Caledonia bore witness to numerous protests and mass riots, and clashes between the police and the native population gradually transformed into guerilla warfare.
At the end of April 1988, FLNKS fighters killed four gendarmes and captured 27 hostages, who were held in a cave on the Uvea Island. Another 7 gendarmes and a judge were among these hostages. The terrorists demanded that negotiations on grating New Caledonia its independence start immediately. The French authorities carried out a military operation, and, as a result of these actions, all the hostages were rescued. But, unfortunately, two French security operatives and 19 Kanaks died. Afterwards, it came to light that the French military and the police, who had taken part in the operation, used excessive force. They killed 12 terrorists after they had been disarmed and did not provide medical assistance to their injured leader, who died a few hours after the confrontation. The scandal prompted the French leadership to agree to negotiations with FLNKS.
In June 1988, the negotiations resulted in the signing of the Matignon Agreements by New Caledonia’s government and FLNKS. According to these accords, the French side pledged to improve Kanak living standards in the following 10 years, while the opposing side promised not to raise the issue of New Caledonia’s independence over the same period.
At the end of this time, in 1998, the Nouméa Accord was signed in Nouméa. The document granted special status to New Caledonia, thereby substantially increasing the region’s autonomy. As a result of this accord, a gradual transfer of power from France to the local government began, which was granted independence from French rule on practically all the issues, such as foreign policy, defense, migration and currency. Besides, the agreement guaranteed that if the president of New Caledonia supported French colonial rule, the Vice President had to have a pro-independence stance. New Caledonia’s residents were able to obtain New Caledonian citizenship (in addition to their French citizenship). And the referendum on the question of New Caledonia’s independence was set for 2018.
Finally, on 4 November 2018, the long-awaited referendum on independence of New Caledonia from France took place. Supporters of the independence movement, who constitute the majority of New Caledonia’s Congress and include many FLNKS members, were in for a great surprise, as 56.7% islanders that took part in the referendum voted for the territory to remain a part of France. The advantage was not big but it was sufficient. Many experts explain the French authorities’ win by the fact that most supporters of independence are the Kanaks, who, for some time now, do not comprise the majority of the island’s population, and that New Caledonia’s residents of Asian and European descent do not have any reasons to dislike France.
On the very next day after the referendum, Édouard Philippe, the Prime Minister of France, arrived in New Caledonia to express his gratitude to its residents for their decision. The French President Emmanuel Macron also addressed New Caledonia by stating that he was proud of the results of the referendum, which he viewed as a sign of the residents’ trust in France and its values.
However, there is an opinion that it is premature for the French leadership to celebrate its victory. Firstly, the number of votes cast for the territory to remain a part of France is not substantially greater than that against. Secondly, supporters of the independence movement among New Caledonia’s government attribute the result to the poor organization of the referendum. While 80.6 % of the population had taken part in the vote, most people who failed to participate, were the indigenous inhabitants of New Caledonia, the Kanaks. Thirdly, according to the 1998 Nouméa Accords, a referendum resulting in a vote against independence entitles New Caledonia to stage it two more times before 2022. Members of FLNKS and other anti-French factions in New Caledonia’s government are planning on taking advantage of this right and ensuring a large turn out by the Kanaks at the next referendum.
Hence, it is too early for France to let down its guard. It would be best for France to consider the measures it needs to take to get the population of New Caledonia on their side within this limited time period if it wants to retain its distant territory.
Sofia Pale, PhD, Research Fellow of the Center for South-East Asia, Australia and Oceania of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”