France Holds On To Its Pacific Colonies


At rush hour in the New Caledonian capital of Noumea, the streets of the city’s "white" neighbourhoods choke with the latest releases from French and German showrooms. BMW four-wheel drives crawl beside Audis, Peugeots and Mercedes, while the Porsche Cayenne is reportedly the car of choice for recently arrived Parisian bureaucrats.

Yet right beside them, emerging from the mangrove swamps that Noumea is built on, another face of the city reveals itself. Ten thousand indigenous Kanaks live in shantytowns with no electricity or running water, and as the working day begins they hit the road in clapped-out utes, bicycles, or on their own two feet. The contrast is stark.

Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Jean-Marie Tjibaou, father of the New Caledonian independence movement and symbol of Kanak emancipation. A leader who blended the "big man" charisma of Melanesian politics with a Parisian education, Tjibaou was considered by many the greatest hope of ending 150 years of French rule in the archipelago before he was shot dead by a disillusioned Kanak radical in 1989.

In the two decades since his death, efforts have been made to forge a "common destiny" for the territory’s Kanaks (who represent 44 per cent of the population) and its European citizens (35 per cent), as well as the Asian and Polynesian communities who make up the rest of New Caledonia’s 245,000 inhabitants.

Greater acceptance of Kanak culture and the devolution of some power to the indigenous heartlands of the north and east has ensured New Caledonia is unlikely to revisit the bloody years of the 1980s, when tit-for-tat killings between Kanaks and Europeans led the territory to the brink of civil war. But Kanaks still have much lower incomes and life expectancy than their European counterparts, and the question of independence remains unresolved.

Under the terms of the 1998 Noumea Accord — signed by Paris, the pro-independence Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste, and the loyalist Rassemblement pour une Calédonie dans la République — New Caledonia’s Territorial Congress will have the power to call a referendum on independence from 2014. In preparation for that date, the French Government is currently devolving powers to the territory, and by 2014 only the "sovereign" ones of justice, defence, public order, finance and currency will remain with Paris.

"Then we will be ready", assures Déwé Gorodé, vice-president of New Caledonia’s territorial government and long-time activist for independence and the rights of Kanaks.

"We are not European; we are Oceanian. It is time we looked after ourselves and took our rightful place in the community of South Pacific nations."

But even if a referendum is called, there is little chance the electorate would vote to cut ties with France. Firstly, the numbers don’t add up. While most (but not all) Kanaks favour independence, white New Caledonians — both those who have been there for generations (called "Caldoches"), and recent arrivals from metropolitan France — are overwhelmingly against it. Siding with them are the territory’s significant Vietnamese and Javanese minorities, as well as migrants from the tiny French Pacific territory of Wallis and Futuna. This would create a voting deadlock, casting an ambiguous shadow over the future of the territory post 2014.

And then there is the question of viability. New Caledonia currently boasts the third highest GDP per capita in Oceania (behind Australia and Hawaii; ahead of New Zealand), mainly thanks to the massive bonuses French bureaucrats are paid to transfer 17,000 kilometres from home. Were this money — which makes up only a portion of the $1.2 billion France spends annually in the territory — to stop, the local beef and tourism industries would not be significant enough to build a state around. To supporters of independence, this is where nickel comes in.

New Caledonia contains an estimated 30 per cent of the world’s nickel reserves, and is currently the fourth biggest producer of the metal (behind Russia, Canada and Australia). In a bid to wean itself off French aid, two huge mines (with smelters) are currently under construction, and when they are both operational in 2013, New Caledonia will be the world’s biggest producer. Significantly, one of the mines, Koniambo, is majority owned by the Northern Province, where 85 per cent of the population is Kanak (and unemployment stands at 28 per cent — three times that of Noumea). Déwé Gorodé hopes the project will alleviate the stress on Noumea, which contains 65 per cent of the territory’s population.

"Two thousand jobs will be created in the mine at Koniambo, and 400 young Kanaks are currently being trained as miners in Quebec," she said. "With the mine will come the need to house and feed the miners, which means a town could emerge that’s big enough to partly stem the rural exodus to Noumea."

But with mining comes risks. As well as holding New Caledonia at the mercy of the world’s nickel prices, the reliance on mining has an environmental cost. Last year the Bordeaux-based mining giant Ballande was found to have dumped 21,000 tonnes of soil contaminated with nickel, cobalt and chrome into the ocean near the northern town of Houailou. Three weeks ago, at the Brazilian-owned Goro project in the south, 5000 litres of acid leaked from a faulty pipeline straight into a local river, causing significant environmental damage. All this in an archipelago considered one of the world’s biodiversity "hotspots", with a coral reef that was only last year added to the World Heritage list.

Another issue that is far from resolved is that of citizenship. Gone are the days when Kanak nationalists wanted an exclusive Melanesian state, excluding the Caldoche population, some of whom have been in the territory for five generations. But if independence was declared, there is the possibility of a white exodus, or even an attempt to secede, as happened in nearby Vanuatu in the lead-up to independence in 1980.

Equally ambiguous is the role recent arrivals from France would play in an independent Caledonia. In a controversial law that directly contravenes article 1 of the French Constitution (which emphasises the same rights for every member of the republic), only those present in the territory for 10 years from 1988 (or their parents, for those born since) are eligible to vote in local elections, including the referendum of 2014. This was done to prevent those who may not have a long-term interest in the territory from having a say in its future. By excluding 10 per cent of the electorate, most of whom oppose independence, this is a coup for the independence movement, though whether it will win them the referendum is doubtful.

"It’s bullshit," says Raphael Bezeau when I ask what he thinks of the law. A native of Lyons, since moving to Noumea six years ago he has made his fortune in the construction business, and now calls the tropical island home. As we drink wine from Bordeaux and eat cheese from Normandy in his highly fortified house (there’s a shantytown behind us, apparently), Bezeau says something that would make General de Gaulle smile in his grave.

"This is France. The French flag flies here, everyone has a French passport, they speak French. If New Caledonians think they should prevent people from deciding the future of this place if they weren’t here in 1988, they are stupid. They need us. I mean, where do they think the professionals of tomorrow will come from?"

Bezeau has a point. Although a law is in place which stipulates that when a Metropolitan is going for the same job as a New Caledonian and they have the same qualifications, the New Caledonian must get the job; in reality, the Caledonian (black or white) rarely has the same qualifications. It is the same dilemma of Indigenous Australia: employ unqualified locals to do the job, or fly in professionals from the big smoke?

As for the role of the French state in the future of New Caledonia, Paris likes to portray itself as a neutral umpire in the debate, kindly providing the offer of self-determination should New Caledonians want it. But of course, France still has a stake in the territory. Metropolitan companies control much of the nickel industry, and while France is cutting military spending elsewhere, it is increasing it in New Caledonia, which will soon be home to the French navy’s Pacific fleet (currently moored in Tahiti).

Former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard, credited with ending the violence of the 1980s, made his opinion clear on a recent visit to the territory. "Caledonia is already independent", he claimed. "The old meaning of the word means nothing now. Look at France. It has gained strength by joining a currency shared by several countries and by allying its army with others."

This Sunday, six days after the 20th anniversary of Tjibaou’s death, New Caledonians go to the polls to vote in elections for the three provincial assemblies. From these a small government in Noumea will be formed for the next five years, the very government with the power to call a referendum on independence in 2014 and perhaps change the course of New Caledonian history.

But for now the process, like Noumea’s traffic, is moving slowly.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.