issue 195 - May 1989
New Caledonia / Kanaky
To many visitors, Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia, appears to be a French riviera town transported to the South Pacific. Its beaches, hotels and fake Parisian chic have long been a great attraction for Australian tourists.
This is not surprising since New Caledonia is an overseas department of France. But many of the inhabitants prefer the post-colonial name of 'Kanaky' and this is one of the keys to the country's deep racial and political divisions.
The substantial French settler population, many of whom came from Vietnam (French Indo-China) and Algeria, have decisively changed the character of the territory leaving the indigenous Melanesians bitter.
Only 43 per cent of the 150,000 people are indigenous Kanaks. The rest are European settlers and others, including about 12,000 people from another French Pacific possession, Wallis Island. The Kanaks say the Wallis Islanders were brought in specifically to alter the balance of the population structure.
In the 19th century New Caledonia, annexed by France in 1853, seemed destined to become a tiny Australia with convicts and political prisoners sent out from France. Already by 1900 the numbers of Melanesians and Europeans was about equal. During the Great Depression many settlers departed to be replaced by others in the 1960s as nickel deposits were developed.
After violence in 1984-5 which claimed more than 30 lives in racial clashes, the then socialist government in France sought to meet Kanak demands by granting them autonomous institutions in three of the island's four regions and a form of independence that would have retained close links with France. Although acceptable to many Melanesians, the proposals were rejected by the French settlers and repudiated by the new right-wing government of Jacques Chirac in France.
In May 1988, fresh outbreaks of violence and a hardening of both Kanak and settler positions brought fears that New Caledonia was heading for civil war. Most Kanaks now appeared to be demanding outright independence.
Enter the compromise. French Prime Minister Michel Rocard proposed that a new, decentralized administration be established. In effect it put the independence issue on the back-burner for ten years.
The island's economy remains dominated by a handful of powerful French families. Kanak complaints of a loss of culture, identity and land are difficult to deny. And the economic gap between the settlers and the Melanesians widens year by year.
Leader: Head of State President Mitterand of France; Head of Government Dick Ukeiwe
Economy: GNP $7,000 (US$17,480)
Health: Infant mortality figures not available
Culture: 38 per cent of the population are French settlers; 43 per cent are indigenous Melanesians or Kanaks. Remainder are from the French Pacific islands of Wallis and Tahiti or Vietnam. French is the official language.
Poor; settlers are far better off than Melan-esians
Heavily dependent on France
Especially poor for Melanesian women
Press is open but totally controlled by French settlers
Around 60 years, but far higher for settlers