While sold to Australian tourists as a touch of Paris by the beach, Kanaky was seized by France only in 1853. In 1998 a referendum will be held, presenting voters with the choice of independence or continued French rule as the "French Overseas Territory of New Caledonia".
The referendum is a product of the militant independence struggle of the Kanak people led by the FLNKS (Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front) in the mid-1980s. Founded in 1984, the FLNKS is a coalition of pro-independence parties, the largest and most significant of which is the Caledonian Union (UC).
Through a combination of demonstrations, roadblocks and land seizures, French rule was thrown into crisis. The movement met heavy military and police repression, the most infamous instance being the killing of 19 activists (three of whom were shot in the back of the head after surrendering) by French commandos following a siege on the island of Ouvéa.
Nonetheless, in 1988 the French government was forced to negotiate. This led to the Matignon Accords, whose most important provision is next year's referendum.
Since April 1996, the previously regular negotiations between the FLNKS, the pro-colonial RPCR (Rally for Caledonia in the Republic) and French government have been suspended by the independence movement. The publication in the French newspaper le Figaro of a document signed by FLNKS president Rock Wamitan and then UC president François Burck, in which independence is no longer projected as the aim of the negotiations, has opened up a heated debate.
Both Socialist Party and conservative governments have refused to recognise the rights of a people deprived of their land through a brutal war of dispossession. So, when in 1988 the FLNKS conference endorsed the Matignon Accords, it noted the refusal of French governments to recognise the Kanak right to self-determination and reaffirmed its commitment to independence.
Faced with violent repression, the FLNKS also had to make concessions in the accords. In order to secure the release of political prisoners and a reduction in military and police deployments, the FLNKS had to accept a referendum deferred for a special 10-year period.
Only those resident in the territory at the time of the agreement in 1988 will be eligible to vote. Even so, Kanaks will be outnumbered by the mostly pro-colonial white and other race populations. A pro-independence majority is by no means guaranteed.
Divisions in movement
It took the FLNKS three conferences to arrive at a generally accepted approach to the accords, with a minority which remained opposed to them breaking away. After two years of terrible repression, the Kanak people needed a truce. However, many feel that the FLNKS negotiators made too many concessions. But the minority of activists who see the accords as betrayal have lacked an alternative strategy capable of inspiring new mobilisations.
The confusion and antagonism within the movement were greatly exacerbated by the assassinations in May 1989 of Jean-Marie Tjibaou and Yeiwéné Yeiwéné, the FLNKS president and vice-president, by another independence activist. This left the FLNKS decapitated and confounded the possibility of calm debate in an especially complex period. The lack of a clear strategy and divisions gave the French government the upper hand.
A provision of the Matignon Accords was the establishment of three provincial government areas, Northern, Southern and Islands. In the 1989 elections, the RPCR won in Southern Province, the richest part of the territory, where the capital Noumea and a majority of the population are located.
The FLNKS won in Northern and Islands provinces. This meant the FLNKS entered new government institutions and acquired political and economic responsibilities without an agreed strategy. Hundreds of activists were drawn into the new institutions.
Before his death, Tjibaou said that the task of the FLNKS governments was "to convince people of our capacity to manage, and at the end of 10 years to have convinced a majority of the population to vote for independence".
The movement's supporters expected a rapid improvement in their living standards, but things were not so simple.
Many infrastructure projects have been implemented, such as roads, schools, hospitals, an electricity station and a port. SMSP, the mining company controlled by the province's government, is responsible for 75% of the country's mineral exports. The profits are put back into the company or go to development projects such as prawn farming.
However, raw mineral exports employ few people and add little value. Consequently, the provincial government and SMSP have negotiated building a nickel treatment plant with the multinational Falconbridge.
Wild rumours circulate about FLNKS leaders secretly lining their own pockets in the process. They, swamped by their administrative duties, respond by pointing out what the provincial government has achieved, and complain about the lack of economic initiative from ordinary people and the difficulties Kanaks have in getting used to market laws.
In their activities, the leaders and activists in the movement have become increasingly disconnected from each other. FLNKS conferences have become little more than a gathering of leaders of the constituent parties. In practice they have little bearing on the decisions of representatives in the provincial governments. In the Islands and Northern provinces, the FLNKS has virtually dissolved into the government structures.
In Southern Province, the RPCR has used government spending to create a certain base within the Kanak population. Without a strategy for mobilising its base, the FLNKS leadership has little to bargain with when sitting at the table with the RPCR.
Far from actively implementing a program to favour Kanak development as promised in 1988, the French government has played the role of "umpire". It has taken advantage of the relative stability to bolster France's political and economic influence. A number of big French firms have set up in the territory as a base for further expansion.
In Noumea it is not necessary to look through the statistics to see who has done well out of the accords. Five-star hotels, casinos, marinas, luxury shops and housing developments are springing up everywhere. The big names in the RPCR and their business friends are allowed free rein.
Since 1989, 10,000 métropolitains (white settlers) have moved to the territory. Greater Noumea has grown enormously.
Kanaks are noticeably absent from the shops and service industries. To find Noumea's working Kanak population, one has to go to the Ducos Peninsula industrial zone. In the last few years, this has been the site of some bitter struggles led by the USTKE (Confederation of Exploited Kanak Workers' Unions) to enforce labour laws.
The city centre is reserved for those who can afford it. Under the pretext of cracking down on cannabis dealers, young Kanaks are hounded out by the police. More than ever Noumea deserves its nickname Ville Blanche.
The setbacks for the movement, eight years in government structures and the uncertainty about the referendum all explain the conservative view that has developed in some sections of the movement.
This current presents the accord between the FLNKS and the RPCR as if it were the expression of a desire to construct a shared future, without even broaching the continued presence of the French state bearing down on the movement and how to end the domination of society by white settlers.
However, the back-pedalling by some of the movement's leaders has inspired a strong response and a new wave of militant political activity. Following the events in April, the UC banned Burck, Wamitan and Jorédier (Northern Province president) from carrying out the negotiations and appointed another team to replace them.
At its last conference, the UC elected a new leadership, including Bernard Lepeu as president. The conference delegates launched fresh debate on how to tackle 1998. The UC activists have demanded that the French government accept an eventual end to colonial rule as a starting point for negotiations on the territory's future.
The fact that several hundred activists attended shows that significant numbers of Kanaks are being drawn back into political activity. The debate has become very public, with different leaders taking each other up daily in the press.
No sooner was the conference over than Jacques Lafleur, RPCR leader and local media baron, made the new leadership the target of attacks and threats. The RPCR and the French government were hoping to keep the FLNKS bottled up in a secret negotiations process, but have failed.
[Based on an article in the French socialist weekly Rouge.]