Journalist Nic Maclellan spoke at a public meeting in Melbourne on July 10 about his visit to New Caledonia to observe the May 11 elections.
Maclellan said New Caledonia was colonised by France in 1853. Indigenous Kanaks have been reduced to a minority in their own country. Kanaks are now 44% of the population. In addition to settlers from France itself, there are also people from other French colonies in the Pacific (Tahiti, Wallis and Futuna), as well as people whose ancestors came from former French colonies such as Vietnam and Algeria.
Legally, all these people are considered French citizens. But in practice there is a huge economic gap between the rich, who are mainly white, and the poor, who are mainly Kanaks and other Pacific Islanders.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Kanaks became radicalised and began to struggle for independence. They faced severe repression. In 1988, 19 Kanaks were massacred, and in 1989 Kanak leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou was murdered.
However, in 1998 an agreement was signed providing for a process that may lead to independence.
Some governmental powers were transferred from Paris to an elected New Caledonian government, though the French government kept control of some key areas such as foreign affairs, defence and police. There is provision for a referendum on independence to be held by 2018 at the latest.
The Kanak pro-independence parties have been trying to win support from members of the non-Kanak communities living in New Caledonia. They have had some modest success, but so far not enough to be sure of winning the independence referendum.
In the recent elections for the New Caledonia congress, pro-independence parties won 25 seats while anti-independence parties won 29.
One factor limiting support for independence is fear of the economic consequences. The French government currently spends $1 billion a year in New Caledonia.
France is spending this money because of the economic importance of New Caledonia, which has a quarter of the world’s nickel reserves. The French company Societe Le Nickel (SLN) controls most of the nickel mining on the island.
There is, however, one nickel mine not controlled by SLN. It is jointly owned by Swiss company Glencore and the Kanak-controlled government of one of New Caledonia’s provinces. Maclellan views this as a positive example of how the people of New Caledonia can benefit economically from mining, though he acknowledges there are environmental problems associated with the mine.
France also wants to keep control of the exclusive economic zone in the sea around New Caledonia. Apart from fishing, there is the potential for undersea mining.
France is in dispute with Vanuatu over the control of a large area of ocean between New Caledonia and Vanuatu.
Australia and France have been carving up the waters between Australia and New Caledonia. Australia has a defence cooperation agreement with France and supports a continued French presence in the Pacific.