New Caledonia and Unrealized Decolonization

New Caledonia and Unrealized Decolonization

Published: 27 May 2024

By Ryan Griffiths

New Caledonia has erupted in violence in recent weeks. At least six people are dead, the related riots have caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, and French President Emmanuel Macron has flown to the other side of the world to soothe the tensions. What is going on?

The answer is a complicated story of failed independence referenda, simmering ethnic tension, and unrealized decolonization.

New Caledonia consists of a set of islands in Melanesia. They were named by the explorer James Cook, who sighted the main island (Grand Terre) in 1774 and thought that is reminded him of Scotland (Caledonia). The name stuck despite the fact that the islands had been inhabited for 3,000 years.

The islands were claimed by France in 1853 during the reign of Emperor Napoleon III. Its status as a penal colony between 1864 and 1897 created a settler population, and the seeds for the ethnic division in contemporary New Caledonia were in many ways sown during this time. Roughly a third of contemporary New Caledonians have European ancestry and many of them are descended from these early convicts and settlers.

One would think that New Caledonia is bound for independent statehood. It is after all on the United Nations List of Non-Self-Governing Territories, a distinction that still privileges a small set of nations worldwide, one that is usually a ticket to independence. New Caledonia is one of the most populated territories on the list, and the government that rules it is far away in Paris.

And yet independence may remain elusive for the simple reason that the Kanaks, the indigenous Melanesian people, are no longer a majority in New Caledonia, and have not been able to convince enough voters to choose independence.

The term “kanaka” is a Hawaiian word for person that was spread throughout Oceania in the 1800s as part of the developing maritime and plantation pidgin vocabulary. The French modified the term to canaque and applied it to the Melanesians in New Caledonia. Although the term was often used pejoratively during the first century of French domination, it was later revalued and is now regarded with pride.

A Kanak-led independence movement began in the 1950s and came to a boil during the violent events of the 1980s (les évènements). It culminated with the 1988 Ouvéa Massacre, a hostage crisis in which 23 were killed, an event that is chronicled in the 2011 film Rebellion. A visitor to the capital of Nouméa will regularly see the Kanak Independence Flag. Its central image is a flèche faîtière, a type of arrow thrust through several tutut shells. It is superimposed on a tricolor design, the chief vexillological image of France and a symbol of revolution. 

In the years that followed, the two sides were able to work out an agreement known as the Nouméa Accord. It established a new Congress in New Caledonia and set the course for an “irreversible transfer of administrative powers from Paris to local authorities and the new Congress.” The aim of this ratchet-like mechanism was to reverse the erosion of local autonomy in the islands. Among other things, the Accord called for a “further 15-20 year transition before a referendum on self-determination for New Caledonia, possibly leading to the ‘emancipation’ of the territory.” The prospects looked good for New Caledonian independence. 

However, the independence side lost the three referenda in 2018, 2020, and 2021. Although they won nearly 47% of the vote in 2020, they could not win a majority. In my 2021 book, Secession and the Sovereignty Game: Strategy and Tactics for Aspiring Nations, I discuss the competing normative demands that shape the independence effort: the principle of decolonization and the democratic principle that the will of the majority should prevail. In this case, decolonization is thwarted because the Kanaks, a colonized people, cannot win a democratic majority.

That reality has set the stage for ongoing ethnic tension. In my interviews, I was told that there is still a simmering level of anger on both wings of the issue, and that there is a high level of gun ownership on the island. Concerns remain over mining rights, and there is still a substantial class disparity – described to me as the “Squats and the Yachts” – that often falls along ethnic lines. One prominent interviewee said that if the independence side loses all three referenda, they will be forced to conclude that the Nouméa Accord has failed to meet the goal of decolonization and have to consider alternative methods.

The spark that lit the tinderbox was an attempt by the French Government to change provincial voting laws. A stipulation of the Nouméa Accord is that voting is restricted to people who lived in the territory before 1998, and to their children. But the new rule would extend voting to those residents who have lived in the territory for at least 10 years – as recently as 2014. The independence side sees this policy change as not only a challenge to the spirit of the Accord, but also a development that will further dilute their vote share in local elections. 

Macron’s emergency dash to the Pacific may calm the tensions for now. Perhaps he will reconsider the proposed policy change. Nevertheless, the underlying problem will not go away. France wants to retain its outpost in the Pacific, and other regional powers are keen to have a continued French presence in the face of an expansionist China. And the majority of New Caledonians prefer to remain French. But a large percentage of the original inhabitants feel marginalized, and think they were cheated out of the opportunity to achieve decolonization.

Ryan Griffiths is Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University. He works on the dynamics of secession and the study of sovereignty, state systems, and international orders. His most recent book is "Secession and the Sovereignty Game: Strategy and Tactics for Aspiring Nations" (Cornell University Press, 2021).

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