New Caledonia, which has been a colony of France since 1853, is, along with French Polynesia, a strategic part of France's South Pacific empire. Since the 1970s its native peoples, the Kanaks, who constitute approximately 42 percent of the islands' population of 160,000, have been engaged in a struggle for independence from French rule. In the 1980s this fight became an armed struggle, bringing casualties to the Kanak community, the French military and the white settlers.
In an effort to avoid civil war, France's prime minister, Michel Rocard, brought together members of the FLNKS (the native people's independence front) and the RPCR (the settler-dominated conservative political party) to decide the future of the territory. These negotiations, known as the "Matignon Accords," produced the third statute to be imposed upon the territory by France within the past four years.
The Matignon Accords
The accords herald a 10-year "peace period" during which the French government will attempt to redress the socioeconomic inequalities in the territory, particularly though development and training programs in Kanak communities. In 1998, at the end of this 10-year period, New Caledonians will be asked to choose between independence and staying within the French Republic.
The FLNKS, which represents about 80 percent of the native peoples, was recognized as the legitimate representative of the Kanaks; the previous statute, the Pons statute, was put on hold. This is an important point, since it was the Pons statute, with its systematic recolonization of Kanak lands by non-Kanaks, which provoked the most violence in the territory. Another important victory for the independence front was the release of all Kanak political prisoners - that is, those Kanaks being held in French prisons for crimes related to the independence struggle. And, of course, the French government has promised to promote Kanak culture and preserve Kanak heritage in New Caledonia.
The territory will be divided into three regions - northern, southern and islands - and it is probable that the Kanak will control the predominately rural northern and islands regions, where they comprise the majority of the population. Development projects will be instituted and bureaucratic structures and government services will be decentralized so as to better serve the more remote northern and islands regions.
In order to reequilibriate the Kanak regions with the predominately white, urban, southern region, the northern and island provinces will benefit from 75 percent of the territory's public investment budget. Priority will be given to training Kanak civil servants, police officers, judges, doctors, teachers, nurses and so on. In addition, a youth training program will incorporate young Kanaks into community development projects.
But the question is: To what extent are the Matignon Accords capable of rectifying the social and economic inequalities in New Caledonia? This discrimination is a product of colonialism. Because the Matignon Accords make no attempt to dissolve the colonial structures in New Caledonia, they cannot hope to remedy the current inequalities. In fact, they risk reinforcing the very structures that handicap Kanak development.
An Economic Profile
The domestic/Kanak economy in New Caledonia produces yams and taros for local consumption. On some reserves this domestic production is supplemented with coffee production for local consumption and export. What Kohler (Le Monde Diplomatique, February 1989) has defined as "the colonial economy" rests on three pillars: ranching, mining and import-export.
Ranching is no longer an important activity in New Caledonia; it produces only 2 percent of its gross domestic product. However, it does play an important ideological role in New Caledonia in that it justifies the European occupation of vast tracks of land claimed by the Kanak.(1)
New Caledonia's lands are a rich source of nickel: they contain 20 percent of the world's nickel reserves, and nickel ore represents 80 percent of the territory's exports. The nickel industry is one of New Caledonia's largest employers, hiring approximately 3,000 skilled and semiskilled laborers. New Caledonia's largest nickel company, le Société le Nickel, is owned by the French government. Although the nickel industry in New Caledonia went into a recession in the mid-1970s with the fall in world nickel prices, evidence suggests that the current rise in nickel prices will herald in a new boom in nickel production(2).
The import-export trade is entirely controlled by a few European families. The major consumers of these goods, imported mainly from France, are the 10,500 French civil servants stationed in New Caledonia, who comprise 30 percent of the territory's wage earners. It is important to note that, economically, New Caledonia is tied to France and through France to the European Common Market, 19,000 km away. There is little or no attempt to integrate the territory into the economy of the South Pacific region. This regional isolation is reinforced by the language barrier, which keeps New Caledonians - and particularly the Kanaks - from establishing links with their anglophone neighbors.
An examination of the regional division proposed by the Matignon Accords shows that the southern province, which contains 90 percent of the European and immigrant populations, is assured continued privileges. Politically this means that the loyalist, anti-independence conservatives will dominate the Territorial Congress: The southern province will have 32 seats, as opposed to the 22 seats for the northern and island provinces.
Under the Matignon Accords, the southern province is also assured economic dominance. The south contains the territory's most important industry, the Société le Nickel, which runs the nickel smelter and owns several important nickel mines in the south. New Caledonia's only source of electricity, the hydroelectric dam at Yaté, is also in the south. All imports and exports pass through the southern port of Nouméa, the territory's capital, or through the international airport nearby. The southern province will also contain an important part of the western fertile plains and the Island of Pines, which has extraordinary tourism potential. The south contains two-thirds of the labor force, most of the management personnel and almost all of the territory's private capital.
Why, then, did the Kanaks agree to the accords? If they did not, the implicit threat was that the Pons statute would remain in effect. The Pons statute instituted a program of "nomadization" in the rural areas, whereby military troops were stationed on Kanak reserves. This intense military presence (12,000 military and police personnel for a Kanak population of 66,000) has been a constant source of tension in the territory. In the summer of 1988, when military troops stormed a FLNKS stronghold in order to rescue French hostages, the bloodshed sent shock waves through the Kanak community. The Kanaks wanted an end to the violence. Moderate FLNKS leaders believe that the Matignon Accords will enable the Kanak provinces to finally develop and prosper, permitting the Kanaks to develop the expertise and skills necessary to become more autonomous from the southern province and to eventually run an independent South Pacific nation.
According to the French government, the northern and island provinces will receive considerable financial support, which will stimulate the regional economy and permit the provinces to begin their own development projects tailored to their specific needs. Although a number of small projects (cooperatives henhouses, orchards) have begun, certain experts claim that these initiatives are insufficient to re-equilibriate the territory's economy within 10 years. According to J.M. Kohler in Le Monde Diplomatique (February 1989), "The socio-economic disparities and the continuance of colonial/capitalist structures are such that the extraordinary transfer of public credits and investment in the Kanak provinces will only have a limited effect."
Inevitably, a larger part of this investment will find its way to the south, where the major construction and commercial businesses are centered - thus reinforcing the southern province's development potential. So long as state finance supports the import-export economy of the south, the Kanak economy cannot develop independently; it will remain a subordinate system of the colonial economy. The northern and island provinces will constitute the southern province's periphery, its cheap labor reserve, its source of raw materials.
Maintaining the Status Quo
The French government refuses to attract New Caledonia's colonial structure. It blindly maintains that the territory's problem stems from a lack of communication, from the inability of the territory's ethnic communities to coexist peacefully. It sees current conflict as a result of mutual misunderstanding, a social problem in which the French government will play the role of ombudsman, stimulating dialogue and understanding, reconciliation and brotherhood President Mitterand believes it is possible to integrate the Kanaks into New Caledonian society through "more equity, a sense of justice and respect for each individual and his culture." The French presence will eliminate discrimination and establish a just colonialism, as opposed to the unjust colonialism of the past.
In setting itself as the "impartial" ombudsman, the French state is denying the intrinsic colonial character of its relationship to New Caledonian. The Matignon Accords represent colonial reform, not decolonization. The French government is trying to please the Kanaks without displeasing the Europeans; it is throwing money at the Kanaks without dismantling the power base of the Europeans. In the end, the financial aid pumped into developing the northern and island provinces will only serve to reinforce the south and the European dominance of the territory.
Most importantly, the accords reinforce French control of New Caledonia. A 10-years peace period mean 10 years of guaranteed French presence. The state will be present everywhere. In the first year of peace, the French high commissioner rules New Caledonia directly; in the second year, the Territorial Congress will be elected, but in order to assure the impartial application of the accords the French state will be represented at all levels of government, from the Congress to the civil service. No legislative or administrative decision will escape the scrutiny of the representatives of France.
Why does France insist on holding on to this distant South Pacific territory? Because her continued control of New Caledonia guarantees her a place in the Pacific arena, where the two superpowers confront each other and where she is closer to the growing economic giants on the Pacific Rim. The 200-mile offshore limit gives France access to considerable maritime and mineral resources. Most important of all is France's nuclear testing program in the Pacific. President Mitterand has said that France will continue to test in the Pacific until at least the year 2000. The FLNKS has adopted a Nuclear-Free Pacific policy, and maintains contact with the French Polynesian anti-nuclear independence movement. France is concerned that a successful independence movement in New Caledonia might have a domino effect. The sinking of the Greenpeace boat the Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand has shown the lengths that France is willing to go to in order to preserve her nuclear presence in the Pacific.
And at the end of 10 years? According to the French government, the Kanaks will have a 53 percent majority by then; however, current demographic projections indicate that they will be only 45 percent of the voting population. Given that approximately 80 percent of the Kanaks support the independence front, it is unlikely that the FLNKS will have the clear majority necessary to win the referendum. It is also conceivable that within 10 years a Kanak middle class will arise, dependent on government salaries and subsidies. This group would be highly unlikely to favor independence, which would cut them off from French funds. The majority of Kanaks currently opposed to independence come from the loyalty Islands, where wages earned in the territory's capital play an important role in the local economy. It is also conceivable that, should the Kanak provinces choose to separate, the territory would be partitioned and the southern province would remain in the French Republic making the Kanak economy even more peripheral to the French economy. It is also possible that a change of ruling parties in France in 1993 would nullify the accords altogether, and bring a new period of political instability to New Caledonia.
1) Ranching has been a source of conflict between Europeans and Kanaks since the nineteenth century, when the Kanaks revolted against settler encroachment on Kanak land and the devastation of Kanak garden crops caused by wandering cattle herds.
2) The rise in nickel prices is attributed to the fact that beer cans are now being fabricated entirely of nickel. In 1988 New Caledonia produced and exported 21 percent more nickel than in 1987.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.