Kanaks of New Caledonia

Alternative names: various clan and tribal names
Location: New Caledonian islands in south-western Pacific
Population: 63,000
% of population: 43%
Religion: Catholic and Protestant, indigenous Kanak beliefs
Language: Kanak languages

The Kanaks are the indigenous Melanesian peoples of New Caledonia or Kanaky, an island group of one large island and several smaller ones, lying mid-way between Australia and New Zealand. The Kanaks are the largest ethnic group in New Caledonia with a total population of about 63,000; about 43% of the population of 145,000. Other groups are French (about 37%), Wallis and Futuna Islanders, Tahitians, Indonesians and other Asian settlers. New Caledonia is an Overseas Territory of France and will be the last of the Melanesian island nations to attain independence. As a result the 1980s have seen conflict between the Kanaks who seek independence and the French settlers who wish to retain the status quo.

French Colonial domination

The Kanaks have inhabited the islands for about 6,000 years, living in autonomous tribal communities in the narrow valleys between the mountains. New Caledonia was so named by Captain Cook who landed there in 1774. He was followed by traders and missionaries from both the UK and France and it was competition between the two which led to French annexation in 1853. New Caledonia was established as a penal colony and ruled by military administration. The French settlers, convicts and cattle took much of the best land while the administration legalized the alienation of Kanak land and replaced traditional chiefs with more docile men. The Kanaks resisted and in 1878 launched a major revolt against the French, in which over 1,000 Kanak lives were lost. Repression continued with further restrictions on land ownership, Kanak tribes were forced onto reservations and subject to the Indignat — a code of “native regulations” also used in other French colonies. In addition Kanaks died from the introduction of new diseases, alcohol and guns. As a result the Kanak population declined from 42,500 in 1887 to only 28,000 in 1901. Meanwhile French and other immigrants settled in New Caledonia, either to farm, to trade or to work in the new nickel mining industry. There was a further Kanak revolt in 1917, partially as a result of the forcible conscription of Kanak men into the French army.

During World War II New Caledonia was of strategic importance in the Pacific theatre and had thousands of American troops based there. Employed by the US forces, the Kanaks for the first time received standard pay for their labour and better treatment than they had from the settlers. The end of the war and an emerging worldwide trend towards decolonization saw reforms in the status of New Caledonia as it became an Overseas Territory with representation in the French National Assembly. Most adult Kanaks obtained the franchise and Kanak political parties began to be formed, most notably the Union Calédonienne (UC). In 1957 a Territorial Assembly was created in which the UC won the majority of the seats. Reactionary French settlers, known as caldoches, opposed the UC, and in 1963 prevailed upon the French government to enact the loi Jaquinot, and later other laws, which restricted the scope of the Territorial Assembly to a purely consultative status. At the same time there was large-scale immigration from France and elsewhere, including French settlers from newly independent Algeria, who tilted the ethnic balance against the Kanaks, who had been beginning to gain in numbers. While the “nickel boom” brought wealth to the French, the Kanaks missed out on the new prosperity and New Caledonia was, and remains, a society divided on race and class lines.

The Kanak independence movement

The 1970s saw the growth of a number of Kanak political parties, many of which sought greater autonomy from France but most of which eventually decided that independence was their goal. Some of these parties were jointly organized by Kanaks and left-wing Europeans but others were formed by radical Kanak youth who had been educated in the French system and were influenced by the events of 1968. Demonstrations and protests against the French presence were violently dispersed by the French police. Conservative French settlers formed their own parties which opposed Kanak demands. Two developments in 1975 intensified Kanak pro-independence feelings. Firstly, there was a rightward shift in French policies with a more rigid colonial policy, and secondly, an increase in settler organization and activities. French policy initially aimed to undermine the Kanak movement by promoting pro-government Kanaks and repressing independence supporters. When this failed there were attempts to improve the economic situation of Kanaks but the pro-independence parties rejected these reforms as too little and too late. The Dijoud plan of 1979, which promoted economic development, was one such example in which attempts were made to diversify the economy while keeping it under French control. After attempts were made to disenfranchise small parties most of the Kanak parties formed the Independence Front (FI) which won 34.4% of the total votes (and 80% of the Kanak votes) and 14 of the 36 seats in the July 1979 territorial elections. Demonstrations, protests and counter-protests, some of them violent, continued.

The election of the Socialist government in May 1981 appeared to favour new initiatives towards independence. However, once in power, the Socialists appeared to renounce immediate independence in favour of minor reforms. In an effort to defuse the escalating conflict the French government invited the different political parties to round-table talks in France. The French government then recognized “the innate and active right of the Kanak people ... to independence” while the FI offered to accommodate the “victims of history”, i.e. caldoches who had resided in New Caledonia for several generations. The French government then proposed a new statute which incorporated a transitional period of internal autonomy, culminating in a referendum on New Caledonia’s future status in 1989. The FI pointed out that the statute did not incorporate its two major concerns; firstly that the electoral register should be restricted to Kanaks and long-term settlers (all French citizens who had been in the territory for six months or longer had the right to vote there) and secondly to move independence forward, preferably to 1985, within the term of the Socialist government. As the French government would not agree to these points, the FI decided to boycott the 1984 Territorial Assembly elections and to confront the government directly.

In the summer of 1984, seeking to broaden its support, the FI reconstituted itself as the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) from four political parties, a labour union and a women’s organization. It organized grassroots committees and at the elections co-ordinated a series of actions — setting up roadblocks, occupying polling stations, setting municipal buildings alight etc. — which for the next few weeks brought the country to a standstill. Eighty per cent of Kanaks abstained from the elections. In December the FLNKS declared a provisional government. There was violence from settlers, backed by right wingers in France, who organized counter-violence, including the deaths of 10 Kanaks in a settler ambush, which came close to bringing the territory to civil war. The French government announced that there should be an “acceleration of the process of self-determination which must lead to a choice, including independence” and appointed Edgard Pisani as Special Envoy to New Caledonia. After further murders and violence on both sides, Pisani declared a State of Emergency in January 1985, bringing in further military forces. Many Kanaks saw these forces as acting with French settlers against Kanaks.

In May 1985 Pisani was recalled to France and became Minister for New Caledonia while the Prime Minister, Laurent Fabius, presented a new status proposal for the territory. This involved a referendum for self-determination in December 1987; the creation of four regions governed by regional councils; economic and other reforms to alleviate inequalities; and the reinforcement of the French military presence. Although these demands did not satisfy FLNKS, after much debate it decided to participate in the elections and embarked on an electoral registration drive. When the elections took place in September 1985 the FLNKS won a majority in the three areas of North, Centre and Loyalty Islands. However, because of the greater weight given to the capital, Noumea, they won only 35.2% of the votes and 16 of the 46 seats in the Territorial Assembly (which had a purely consultative function) compared to anti-independence parties with 60.8% and 26 seats respectively. Eighty per cent of Kanaks had voted for pro-independence parties. Despite continued violence, many Kanaks found the experience of government in the Regional Councils a valuable one, the first time that they had been able to exercise power under French rule. However it was short-lived, since the new Conservative government in France, elected in March 1986, announced in May 1986 that it would transfer to the Territorial Assembly most of the powers granted to the Regional Councils.

This created great bitterness among the Kanaks as did the French government decision to hold a referendum on the future of the colony. FLNKS called for a boycott of the referendum, which was finally held in September 1987, under heavy military protection. Of the 59% of the electorate who voted in the referendum, 98% voted for retention of links with France. However, 31%, or 82% of the Kanak population, boycotted the referendum in protest. South Pacific Forum countries stated that they did not consider the referendum a genuine act of self-determination. FLNKS leaders stated that they could not rule out further violence. This reached a flashpoint in May 1988 when Kanak militants took 23 French gendarmes hostage in a cave at Ouvea, resulting in the deaths of 19 Kanaks by French troops; some apparently had been killed while in military custody.

The Accord de Mantignon and after

The situation was in part resolved by the new elections in France which resulted in a victory for the Socialist Party. The new Prime Minister, Michel Rocard, immediately began a process of negotiation and reconciliation between representatives of FLNKS and pro-French groups. The Accord de Mantignon was signed on June 26, and the protocol on the draft agreement on August 20,1988 by Jean Maire Tjibaou on behalf of the FLNKS. It had as its main provisions (i) a one-year period of direct rule of New Caledonia from France, followed by (ii) the creation and transfer of powers to three new regional assemblies for a 10 year period, after which (iii) a new and final referendum on future status would be held in which the options would be independence or continued association as part of France (with only those who had been living in New Caledonia since 1988 to take part in voting); (iv) increased French economic aid to disadvan-taged Kanak regions; and (v) the promotion of Melanesian culture. Despite criticisms of the Accord by extremists on both sides, it was accepted by the FLNKS, and by the majority of Kanaks in a later referendum. However, only 40% of non-Kanaks voted in favour.

There are difficulties in implementing of the Accord. Since most non-Kanaks remain opposed to it and many Kanaks are impatient with the 10-year period, it is probable that the Accord will face considerable strains. It faced a severe test in May 1989 when Kanak leaders Jean Maire Tjibaou and Yeweine Yeweine were assassinated as collaborators by Kanaks at Ouvea, the scene of the previous year’s confrontation.

Economic and social inequalities

Kanaks are a disadvantaged minority within New Caledonia. There are marked disparities between the capital Noumea, where most whites live, and the rural areas. Kanaks are discriminated against in employment, holding low-paid unskilled jobs, and many are unemployed. Few are employed in the nickel industry, the main economic asset of the island. Land is at the heart of Kanak grievances. Eighty per cent of Kanaks live on the reservations where they were herded by French colonialists. The area of the reservations has increased by only 15% since that time but the Kanak population has more than doubled. Programmes to redistribute land to the Kanaks have largely failed. There is particular resentment against French domination of language and education. The foundation of the Kanak newspaper “Bwenando” and the Kanak radio station “radio Djiido” in 1985 marked major breakthroughs, as did the formation of the écoles populaires kanaks (EPK) — Kanak alternative schools movement, established by the FLNKS in 1985. Kanaks have been continuously disadvan-taged in French schools, although they comprise over half the school population, because of the use of the French language and curriculum. The EPK, operating in Kanak languages and promoting Melanesian culture, remains the most impressive example of continuing Kanak organization.

(See also Tahitians of Polynesia)