What does New Caledonia mean to France?

4 weeks ago 24

Separated by a good 16,500 kilometers (10,252 miles), Paris and the French overseas territory of New Caledonia could not be much further apart. On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron had planned to visit a new nuclear power plant in Normandy, which is much closer, but instead remained in the French capital to head crisis management meetings on the South Pacific territory.

After days of violence that left several people dead, hundreds injured and more than 200 arrested, France has imposed a  state of emergency in New Caledonia, deploying additional security forces and blocking TikTok in an attempt to restore public order on the archipelago.

When did New Caledonia become French?

New Caledonia is located in the Southwest Pacific, some 1,300 kilometers off the coast of Australia. The territory comprises the main island of New Caledonia and several smaller islands. The British explorer James Cook was the first European to set foot there in 1774, more than 2,000 years after the archipelago was first populated. The mountainous scenery of the northeastern part of the main island reminded Cook of his native Scotland — Caledonia in Latin — which is how the main island earned the name it still boasts today. When he arrived, there were reportedly some 60,000 Kanaks, the indigenous Melanesian inhabitants of the island, living there. Ultimately, many of them would be forced onto reservations.

In the following decades, sailors and Christian missionaries from Britain and France arrived and settled on New Caledonia. In 1853, under Napoleon III, France took formal possession of the island, which it primarily used as a penal colony at first. After nickel was discovered, mining began in earnest, with the industry soon expanding to include copper extraction as well.

In 1887, France's "Code de l'indigénat" [Indigenous Code] was applied to New Caledonia. This set of laws subjected indigenous populations in the French colonies to strict rules and denied them certain civil rights. Many Kanaks were enslaved and forced to work in New Caledonia, or other parts of the world.

From the beginning, the Kanak people made several failed attempts to rid themselves of the colonial power. When the archipelago became a French overseas territory after the Second World War — like some of France's other colonies in the Pacific and Caribbean — the Kanaks of New Caledonia received French citizenship and were gradually granted the right to vote.

Today, Kanaks make up roughly 40% of New Caledonia's population of approximately 270,000. 

Moreover, the territory's currency is pegged to the Euro, and its citizens are eligible to vote in both French and EU elections. 

Ongoing demands for independence

There have been continued demands for independence in New Caledonia since the 1970s and these have been supported by much of the Kanak community. The United Nations has also backed these demands, and in 1986 the General Assembly re-inscribed New Caledonia on its list of "non self-governing territories." In 1988, France agreed to grant New Caledonia more autonomy.

But a majority of the population — particularly those descended from French colonialists — wants New Caledonia to remain part of France.

One reason is economic: according to the government of neighboring Australia, the €1.5 billion (ca. $1.6 billion) New Caledonia received from Paris in direct budgeting payments in 2020 accounted for some 20% of the territory's overall economic output that year.

In independence referendums held in 2018 and 2020, only 43.6% and 46.7% of participants voted in favor. A 2021 referendum was boycotted by independence parties leading to a skewed result of nearly 97% against.

Smoke and an empty street with palm trees A state of emergency was imposed after widespread unrest Image: Delphine Mayeur/dpa/picture alliance

Angered by new voting rights law

The anger now being voiced by many independence advocates in New Caledonia has been directed at a new voting rights law recently passed by the French parliament. The law would enlarge the electorate for New Caledonia's provincial elections.

Currently, only those who have lived in New Caledonia since at least 1998 are allowed to vote. The new law would afford the right to vote to those who have had their main residence in New Caledonia for at least 10 years without interruption.

French President Emmanuel Macron has not yet signed the law. The protests were an attempt to dissuade him from doing so. The pro-independence movement fears that the addition of so many new voters to the rolls will dilute its own political heft.

A man wearing an orange T-shirt is seen in front of a white car, while people wave an independence movement flag in the backgroundMuch of the indigenous population favors independence Image: Theo Rouby/dpa/picture alliance

Geopolitical and economic interests

France, which is a nuclear power with a veto in the UN Security Council, continues to see itself as a global power. Its military has air and naval bases in New Caledonia, which are of geopolitical importance.

Furthermore, the archipelago's natural resources are of major economic importance. In 2021, 190,000 tons of nickel were mined there, according to US estimates. Only Indonesia, the Philippines and Russia produced more. 

New Caledonia's pro-independence movement has also gotten support from an unexpected ally, the former Soviet republic Azerbaijan, which France has accused of meddling. 

In a recent article, the US media outlet Politico said that Philippe Gomes, the former president of the New Caledonian government, had accused Azerbaijan of "actively funding the pro-independence Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front." French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has made similar allegations.

Azerbaijan has dismissed claims it is behind the recent unrest in New Caledonia.

This article was translated from German.

French lawmakers spark riots in New Caledonia

Read Entire Article