New Caledonian Politics

by W.S. McCallum © 1993, 1998


1. New Caledonia 1878: The Kanak Insurrection

2. The FLNKS in New Caledonia 1984-1994. From Violence to Cooperation with the French State

3. New Caledonia 1998: le retour aux sources


1. New Caledonia 1878: The Kanak Insurrection

La Foa blockhouse




New Caledonia became a French territory on 24 September 1853, when Rear-Admiral Febvrier-Despointes claimed the archipelago. Situated in the South-West Pacific at the northern end of the Tasman Sea, New Caledonia had been the scene of rivalry between French Marist and English Protestant missionaries, and it was deemed timely to claim the isles before perfidious Albion did so.


French settlement in New Caledonia proceeded irregularly. The colony's isolation and tales of cannibals deterred many a prospective settler, while crop failures due to drought, pestilence or poor soil sent many settlers who did reach New Caledonia heading elsewhere. France's decision to use New Caledonia as a penal colony from 1864 also did little for the islands' image. Despite setbacks however, French settlement made inroads on the Grande Terre or mainland. By 1878, over 13,000 Europeans were living in New Caledonia, along with around 1,200 African, Asian and Pacific Islander labourers.



                                                                        ▲ Military post, 1878

 The Grande Terre of New Caledonia


The islands' Melanesian inhabitants, nowadays called Kanaks, lived in dozens of tribes scattered around the colony. The Kanaks had welcomed the earliest European settlers but conflict was inevitable as those tribes in contact with the French realised that not only did these strange visitors intend to stay permanently, but they also desired to occupy tribal land to establish farms and settlements. As French settlements spread along the west coast, recurrent massacres occurred. Isolated settler families were periodically murdered and eaten, provoking swift crackdowns from the colonial government, which would despatch gendarmes and/or troops to take reprisals.


In the 1870s, the situation worsened for those tribes living in the centre of the Grande Terre. They had already witnessed the decimation of southern tribes at the hands of the French in 1859, and realised that unscrupulous settler land grabs were also beginning to threaten their existence. Tribes forced off prime agricultural land by settlers were pushed up mountain valleys along the Grande Terre's central mountain chain, leaving them with barren land on which to try to cultivate their crops. Another threat to Kanak well-being came from wandering cattle introduced by the French. Settlers seldom fenced off their herds. These caused havoc, trampling and eating tribal crops which occasionally left tribes short of food. By 1878, there were 80,000 cattle in New Caledonia, compared to an estimated Kanak population of 70,000. Repeated complaints to the colonial administration brought no lasting solution to Kanak grievances. Consequently, a group of tribal leaders took the unprecedented step of forming a large-scale inter-tribal alliance to plan a decisive strike that would force the French back.

Theatre of  Operations, 1878


The Insurrection


The incident that sparked the insurrection occurred from 18 June 1878. On the west coast of the Grande Terre, 22km north-west of Bouloupari, a settler was murdered, along with his Kanak wife and their child. The massacre had been carried out by members of two local tribes. The Bouloupari and La Foa gendarmes investigated, and arrested eight local chiefs and seven warriors. The chiefs remained imprisoned at the gendarmeries of La Foa and Bouloupari, where they were to languish for only a few days...


With so many chiefs simultaneously in the custody of the French, the insurrectionists decided to act. The main force behind the insurrection at this stage were two powerful local tribes - the Dogny, and the Uarai. Atai, the leader of the Uarai, was to become the most infamous of the insurrectionists. At 5am on 25 June, their warriors surrounded the gendarmerie at La Foa and attacked. They achieved complete surprise, and freed those tribesmen held prisoner after killing the gendarmes. At almost the same time, colonists were attacked around Dogny, La Fonwhari and La Foa.


Word of the attacks reached Lieutenant Vanauld, commander of the coastal garrison of Teremba, by 8am. He alerted the capitol, Nouméa, and set about investigating. Seven marines were sent off in a penitentiary carriage to reconnoitre La Foa, while Vanauld followed with 16 marines, leaving behind 16 men to hold Teremba. On the way to La Foa, Vanauld received a message from his reconnaissance force that the massacres were part of a general rebellion. He also received a disturbing message from Teremba - the garrison was under attack. At La Foa, Vanauld left behind 12 men to evacuate survivors, while the marines in the carriage travelled further afield to alert isolated homesteads.


Vanauld hurried back to Teremba with six men, determined that the post should hold. Chief Atai had attacked the post with a large force and set a nearby brickworks on fire. When Vanauld returned around 11.30am, Teremba was virtually surrounded. Relief was close at hand. The gunboat La Vire was expected by Vanauld, as it was making a survey trip around New Caledonia. The ship arrived in the bay around 1.00pm. La Vire's commander, Captain Rivière, had four cannons at his disposal and, when he sent a landing party ashore, Atai's force withdrew. Teremba was now secure, and Rivière detailed some of his sailors to assist Vanauld in finding settlers to evacuate.


On the morning of 26 June, a group of around 300 warriors from the Ouaménie, Gwi and Koa tribes went on the war path. After some general pillaging, at 10am they attacked the gendarmerie at Bouloupari. Three gendarmes were killed, one escaped, and one was wounded but was later rescued. The imprisoned Kanak chiefs languishing in the cells were released. The war party also murdered Bouloupari's telegraph operators and their families, and ransacked the telegraph office. Following this, they attacked the prison camp at Bouloupari, killing 26 prisoners and two overseers. Only three prisoners and the camp commandant escaped.


Some help was at hand. Lieutenant-Colonel Galli-Passebosc, New Caledonia's military commander, in an attempt to find out what was happening around La Foa and Bouloupari, had rushed to the area aboard the vessel La Seudre with 200 troops and disembarked three squads of marines at Bouraké, 18km from Bouloupari. This detachment never reached Bouloupari, as it was forced to turn back after being surrounded by a group of insurgents. However, it did succeed in rallying fleeing colonists, who were later evacuated by ship to Nouméa. Galli-Passebosc had, in the meantime, moved on to Teremba, to consult with Rivière. It was only on the evening of 26 June that he learnt of the massacre at Bouloupari, and a report of what had happened to his detachment.


As a result of the attacks on La Foa and Bouloupari, two gendarmeries had been destroyed, over 100 colonists were dead, and many more were wounded. Homesteads and settlements had been ransacked and burnt. News of the events in Nouméa that day provoked panic. Rumours circulated of impending attacks by the southern tribes on Nouméa, although none eventuated. Governor Olry stayed calm, but did order the evacuation of other convict camps near the danger area, declared a state of siege, and raised a volunteer unit of horsemen to supplement the troops already in the colony. As an added precaution, Kanaks resident in Nouméa were interned.


The French response to the insurrection was to organise columns to occupy the Bouloupari/La Foa area. Efforts were also made to rally tribes traditionally hostile to chief Atai and his allies. On the east coast, on 27 June, the French district officer at Canala rallied over 400 warriors of the Canala tribes to the French cause, whom he led over the mountain, to the La Foa region. Later, the Bourindi from Thio joined the French, as did tribes from Paita. Both La Foa and Bouloupari were reoccupied by early July, but the surrounding areas were far from subdued, so plans were made to re-establish communication links through the region, build blockhouses, and subdue the insurgents with mobile columns. Faced with difficult terrain, and an enemy with superior speed, better bushcraft, and an intimate knowledge of the terrain, the French experienced mixed results. On 3 July, while his column had stopped near La Foa to repair cut telegraph lines, Galli-Passebosc was fired on by Kanak snipers and was gravely wounded. Two days later, he died from his wounds. The snipers escaped from the scene.


Rivière took over as New Caledonia's military commander, and resolved to continue Galli-Passebosc's pacification plans. Kanak resistance was still heavy though. Just days after Rivière took over command, 500 warriors attacked Bouloupari, who were fought off by its garrison of some 100 sailors. On 8 July, a column marching on Bouloupari from Paita was surrounded by 300 warriors. Rivière sent off a relief force from Bouloupari and successfully disengaged the column. During July, the French and Kanaks burnt each others' villages in reprisals, but neither side could claim any conclusive victory in the field.


In August, the insurgents made repeated attempts to overcome the garrison of La Foa; some 80 men under a Captain Lafond. While in the middle of constructing a blockhouse, Lafond's men were attacked on 13 and 18 August. Both attacks were repelled. Just as the blockhouse was completed on 24 August, around 500 warriors attacked. They suffered heavy losses, including chief Morai of the Ourail tribe, who probably commanded the force. The defenders suffered only two men seriously wounded, and several had light wounds. Two days later, a column was sent off to track down the fleeing insurgents, but it found itself encircled, and the French had to withdraw.


The French hope that the insurrection would remain isolated to the La Foa/Bouloupari area was in vain. Tribes to the north-west also rose. On 21 August, the Moindou tribes joined the insurrection, then the Poyasées on 11 September, followed by the Guaro, Nera and Nessadiou on 24 September and, at the beginning of October the rest of the Bourail tribes and the large tribes near Koné. Rivière concentrated his efforts on the original insurgents. On 1 September, Rivière sent three columns off from La Foa to drive Atai and his allies into three other columns set up to cut off lines of retreat. Around noon, Atai was surprised in his camp by one of the columns. Most of his warriors fled, and he was speared by a Canala warrior before he could use a gendarme's sabre that he was equipped with. He and six other warriors were beheaded. Atai's death was a major blow, but it did not stop the insurgents. Atai was not their only capable leader.


The French concentrated on systematically raiding and burning Kanak villages. These attacks netted many women and children, who were handed over to friendly tribes as prizes of war. Nonetheless, by the end of September, the insurrection, despite French efforts at containment, had spilled over into a larger area, causing more massacres of colonists, and more rushed evacuations to Nouméa. But, however slowly, the French were gaining control. Rivière split his command, concentrating his efforts south east of Bourail, while delegating command of forces north-west of Bourail to one Lieutenant-Colonel Wendling. French reinforcements arrived, in the form of further troops, and tribes which had decided it was advantageous to join the French side. Around Koné, the tribes went over to the French, and the Houailou tribes of the east coast crossed the mountains, wreaking havoc around Bourail.


By the end of October, the French had succeeded in setting a cordon up around insurgent tribes, and held the initiative. They had, by now, forced their opponents from their villages, and into various refuges, where they were forced to rely on whatever provisions they might have. The Kanaks took advantage of the rugged terrain of the central mountain chain, hiding in caves and other remote spots. One limestone formation, dubbed ''the fortress of Adis'', was held by insurgents from October through to 21 November. The Kanaks held out against repeated attacks, finally withdrawing when their position became untenable.


In December, faced with continued French raids and attacks, insurgent tribes began defecting to the French. For all this, the insurgents were far from beaten, but the end was now in sight. Fighting continued until April 1879, but by 18 April, Governor Olry was able to write to his superiors that, effectively, the insurrection had been quelled. The cost had been high for such a small colony: over 200 European settlers were dead, and over 200 farms had been pillaged and destroyed. Among the insurgents, it was estimated some 1,200 had died in combat, with uncountable non-combatants abducted by tribes allied to the French. 600 insurgents were deported to the isle of Pines, and 200 to the Belep Isles. Those prisoners assumed to be more danger­ous were deported to distant Tahiti.


Weapons and Tactics


For the French, the New Caledonian insurrection of 1878 came as a great surprise, and as an immense shock. Racist stereotypes of the times portrayed the Kanaks as stupid, lazy, and cowardly. The degree of planning that went into the insurrection, and the skill with which the insurgents fought, outgunned and outnumbered, shook these assumptions.


Despite over a century of European contact, the typical Kanak warrior of the 1870s had not changed greatly from pre-European times. Traditional weapons such as spears, stone axes and slingshots were the main arms. The Kanaks used bows, but only for hunting and sport. The appearance of Kanak warriors varied from tribe to tribe, but typical garb consisted of either a loincloth, penis gourd, or skirt (grass or fabric), body paint, and head dress of varying descriptions. Some tribes also wore anklets. Turbans were quite common, but bore little resemblance to the Indian variety.


Paradoxically, those tribes allied to the French were generally less Europeanised than the insurgents themselves, who wore items of European clothing, including caps, trousers, shirts and jackets in addition to more traditional dress. Chief Atai was described as wearing an infantryman's trousers and képi, a military jacket with gold epaulettes and, as mentioned previously, carried a captured sabre. Such dress would have been less prevalent among the rank and file of his followers. The insurgents also widely used European iron hatchets or tamiocs, superior to traditional stone axes (which were called gi). It is difficult to quantify the number of firearms used by the insurgents, but they were not abundant. Those riflemen that the insurgents possessed however, were competent shooters. The insurgents, both before and during the insurrection, made concerted attempts to obtain firearms. Seasonal workers on European properties purchased guns and ammunition with their wages. Scrap metal was also melted down into shot to save on the cost of purchasing ammunition. Numbers of firearms were also netted in assaults on homesteads, settlements and gendarmeries. Types of guns used therefore included a mix of civilian types, both muzzle loaders and breech loaders. Also present, no doubt in smaller numbers, were captured examples of the military Chassepot, the standard service rifle with French troops in New Caledonia from 1869. The insurgents possessed no artillery.


Traditionally, the Kanaks of New Caledonia relied on stealth and surprise in their tribal wars. Massed, open battles between tribes were rare. Instead, tribal warfare consisted of a series of ambushes and raids on villages, reprisal following reprisal. Engagements usually ended after one side had lost only three or four warriors, so that their bodies might be evacuated safely from the field. To have your dead captured, dismembered and/or eaten by a hostile tribe was considered shameful. This habit persisted in the insurrection of 1878. The Kanak custom of removing their dead from the battlefield made it difficult for the French to gauge the effectiveness of their shooting.


True to their traditional style of warfare, and also prompted by an awareness of French firepower, the insurgents avoided open confrontation with French columns. Warriors would harass columns with thrown spears, slingshots, and the occasional gunfire, while taking advantage of the dense cover that the New Caledonian bush offered. Attacks on columns usually involved skirmishers assaulting the flanks and rear.

Different tactics were adopted in 1878 for assaults on military posts and French settlements. Warriors would attack in three waves. The first consisted of the spearhead; the second was assigned to gathering plunder (French clothes, guns, supplies, tools or anything else deemed useful); and the third torched buildings before the force withdrew. The insurgents were also well aware of the value of telegraph lines, and would cut these wherever possible to avoid word of attacks reaching further afield. Unlike, for example, the Zulus, the Kanaks generally would not press home an attack when faced with overwhelming firepower aimed across open ground. Some contemporary observers saw this as proof of cowardice. More likely, it was the result of common sense.


Wherever possible, the insurgents chose not to be pinned down by French troops, as this would inevitably result in heavy losses and probable defeat. They were nonetheless aware of the possibilities offered by fortified positions. Traditionally, Kanaks limited the approaches to the narrow valleys in which hill tribes lived by planting hedges, barriers of banyan groves, or by constructing walls with piled stones. Natural citadels such as limestone caves and rock formations were also used in defence.


French troops involved in the insurrection of 1878 went into battle with much the same arms and uniforms as used in the Franco-Prussian War. Few concessions seem to have been made to the local climate, which is very humid, and stays above 20°C even in mid ''winter''. Photos taken of French troops based in New Caledonia in the 1870s show them wearing the same heavy greatcoats as were used in France. Tropical white trousers and shirts were used, along with blue jackets and greatcoats. Headdress consisted of white pith helmets and the ubiquitous blue képi.


French irregulars were a mixed bag. ''Convict soldier'' units were raised from the various penitentiaries on the Grande Terre, and had a reputation of lawlessness and brutality. Being lightly equipped, they were used as scouts. These men were under the command of a warder named Mercury, and were nicknamed les Mercury.


Also present on New Caledonia were large numbers of political prisoners, notably supporters and leaders of the Paris Commune who had been deported. Interestingly, many Communards volunteered to fight in support of the French institutions they had violently opposed only a few years before. The first unit, of 36 men, was raised shortly after the insurrection began. They were led by their own democratically-elected officer, a Lieutenant Malherbe. Equipped, like other French troops, with Chassepot rifles, the Communards were used as franc-tireurs, and fought lightly clothed, often in shirtsleeves. A second unit of Communards, also of 36 men, went into action in November 1878, led by the overseer Bonnieux. Mention should also be made of volunteer horsemen, raised from free colonists.


Neither should the contribution made by friendly tribes be neglected. It has been argued that, without the help of these warriors, the French campaign would have foundered. Tribesman were used as flying columns, travelling faster than the French columns. Due to their speed and better knowledge of terrain, these tribesman frequently operated independently of the French columns.

French columns aimed to be mobile, and were not as big as might be thought. For example, the three mobile columns which were the centrepiece of Rivière's operation on 1 September 1878, (which resulted in the killing of chief Atai), consisted of the following. The right column contained 18 franc-tireurs, 12 Mercurys and 30 tribesmen. The left column had 35 soldiers, five franc-tireurs, five Mercurys, and 500 Canala warriors. The centre column had 25 soldiers, five franc-tireurs, five Mercurys, and 20 Canala warriors.


The French response to the insurgents was to wage a war of attrition, a strategy that the Kanaks were ultimately unable to counter. The widespread destruction of Kanak villages and crops, along with the abduction or slaughter of women and children eventually deprived the Kanaks of their logistical support. This, combined with the overwhelming numbers of troops the French fielded, caused grave problems for the Kanaks. In the first few days of the insurrection, the insurgents enjoyed a numerical advantage over isolated posts and settlements around La Foa and Bouloupari, having an estimated force of several hundred warriors. But the French soon deployed some 2,500 French regular troops and many more irregulars. By the end of the campaign, the French had 4,665 regulars in the field, although many of these were spread out guarding posts and supply lines. Despite their overwhelming superiority in arms, numbers, and logistical support, the Kanaks gave the French a difficult time, using guerrilla tactics involving the massing of forces against weak points such as supply columns and isolated garrisons.




Bronwen Douglas: ''“Almost constantly at war”? An ethnographic perspective on fighting in New Caledonia'' in The Journal of Pacific History vo1. 25 no. 1 1990.


Roselene Dousset-Leenhardt: Colonialisme et contradictions: Nouvelle-Calédonie 1878-1978. L'Harmattan, Paris, 1978.


Roselene Dousset-Leenhardt: Terre natale. Terre d'exil. G.P. Maisonneuve et Larose, Paris, 1976.


Patrick O'Reilly: Photographies de Nouvelle-Caledonie. Nouvelles Éditions Latines, Paris, 1978.


Jean-Marie Tjibaou et al.: Kanaké - the Melanesian Way. Les Éditions du Pacifique, Papeete, French Polynesia, 1978.


© Wayne Stuart McCallum  December 1993



2. The FLNKS in New Caledonia 1984-1994.

From Violence to Cooperation with the French State

The Matignon Accords, 26 June 1988: Jacques Lafleur (RPCR) and Jean-Marie Tjibaou (FLNKS).

(Haut-Commissariat de la République en Nouvelle-Calédonie)

The Political Landscape

The 1980s represented one of the most violent periods of New Caledonia's history since its annexation by France in 1853. Over fifty people were killed in sporadic confrontations, mainly from 1984 to 1988, over the question of territorial independence. From September 1984, the Front de Libération Nationale Kanake et Socialiste (National Kanak Socialist Liberation Front-FLNKS), the largest Melanesian nationalist formation in New Caledonia, campaigned for Kanak sovereignty. Roadblocks, bombings, riots and shootings appeared to have become commonplace by the final weeks of 1984. French loyalists opposed to independence railed against, and Kanak nationalists prophesied, the supposedly imminent foundation of an independent Republic of Kanaky. Yet Kanak discontent with French sovereignty failed to lead to conflict on the same scale as the tribal rebellions of 1878 and 1917 when, respectively, around 1400 (Dousset-Leenhardt 1976, 168) and 220 people (Raluy 1990, 85) had been killed. In 1984 French journalists and politicians declared rhetorically, and erroneously, that developments in New Caledonia were becoming a rerun of the decolonisation of French Algeria. However a decade later France still exercised sovereignty over New Caledonia, the Republic of Kanaky remained an abstract concept rather than a recognised state, politically-motivated violence played no part in territorial life, and the followers of Kanak nationalism and French loyalism were coexisting peacefully.

Although since 1984 the most powerful expression of Kanak demands has been the FLNKS, this coalition has attracted inadequate electoral backing to gain independence through the ballot box. Under the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic, Paris may grant independence to one of its overseas territories only if an absolute majority of the territory in question has expressed support for secession from France in a self-determination referendum. It was under this constitutional framework that the Comoros, in 1975, and Djibouti, in 1977, gained their independence after voting for self-government.

In New Caledonia, there exists no majority support for independence. Unlike the Melanesians of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, New Caledonia's indigenous inhabitants have become an ethnic minority in their own lands, representing 44.8 per cent of the local population in 1989. The immigrant groups which have settled in New Caledonia since French annexation of the islands in 1853 not only enjoy an absolute majority of the territory's population, but also of its electorate. These immigrants and their descendants, concentrated predominantly in the south of the Grande Terre, the New Caledonian mainland, have opposed Kanak nationalism as a threat to their future in the territory and have consistently voted for conservative parties advocating continued links with France. For example, in the French legislative elections of March 1993, of the 54,411 voters who participated in New Caledonia, in total 11,545, or 21.22 percent, voted for the two FLNKS candidates. The two candidates presented by the Rassemblement Pour la Calédonie dans la République (Assembly For Caledonia in the Republic-RPCR), the largest French loyalist party in the territory, received a total of 28,255 votes, or 51.93 per cent of the territorial vote.

Much coverage of the contemporary political situation in New Caledonia in the English language South Pacific press, (for example the writings of Helen Fraser and David Robie in Pacific Islands Monthly) has tended to neglect such primary constitutional, demographic and electoral considerations. It has been tacitly assumed that the French State has a moral obligation to unilaterally grant independence in response to the FLNKS's claim to represent the original inhabitants of New Caledonia, its Melanesians. Such inherently pro-Kanak analysis was also voiced by various South Pacific politicians in the 1980s. For instance in January 1982 Bill Hayden, who was appointed foreign minister for the Australian Labor Government from 1983, declared that France should preferably grant New Caledonian independence within five years (SMH, 7 January 1982). He dismissed the absence of majority support for secession in the territory as irrelevant, expressing the claim that Kanak sovereignty was effectively an historical inevitability, as by the late 1980s Melanesians would have the status of a territorial electoral and demographic majority. History has proven otherwise. Certain less impassioned academic commentators have also made the elementary error of misinterpreting the constitutional framework for New Caledonian independence. For example Robert Aldrich has written that Paris might have unilaterally granted independence to New Caledonia in the 1980s (Aldrich 1993, 266), although this was not possible without major constitutional reforms and was not a politically admissible option for any administration of the day. For better or worse French governments under the Fifth Republic, whether leftist or centre-right, have generally worked within existing constitutional structures to promote reform in New Caledonia. The major barriers to successfully granting independence to an electoral and demographic minority in New Caledonia should not be overlooked. It was singularly unlikely in the 1980s that, in the highly improbable event of a French government being prepared to alter the constitution to unilaterally grant independence to the territory, civil order would have been maintained there. Regardless of moral considerations, New Caledonia's non-indigenous population was no more prepared to passively contemplate sovereignty being granted to a Kanak minority than non-indigenous populations would have been to abdicate sovereignty in the face of minority indigenous nationalist movements in Australia, New Zealand, or Hawaii.

Bearing constitutional, demographic and electoral considerations in mind, this essay examines why the FLNKS, after ten years of activism, was still no closer to gaining Kanak independence than it was at the time of its foundation. It is also explained why, contrary to the predictions of various observers in 1984, the national liberation struggle proclaimed by the FLNKS did not develop into a campaign of guerilla warfare against the French presence. Examination is offered of the material limitations which rendered the formation ill-prepared to convert its revolutionary rhetoric into concerted armed struggle. Then the course of the two FLNKS militant campaigns to date, those of 1984 and 1988, is charted to illustrate how these limitations were reflected in the coalition's use of political violence. It is also argued that the limited and harmful effects of this violence led the FLNKS to tone down its militant agenda and agree to pragmatic collaboration with the French State, in the hope that Kanak independence might be attained by peaceful means.

This article avoids arguing a moral case for or against the concept of Kanak sovereignty, as too much published writing on contemporary New Caledonian politics has been deleteriously influenced by partisan political viewpoints. Certain conservative French commentators (Desjardins 1985, ARLR 1985) dismissively berate the FLNKS as savage terrorists, heralding a return to barbaric primitivism in New Caledonia. Such argumentation is as overstated as that of certain pro-Kanak French writers (Coulon 1985, Gabriel & Kermel 1985), who have placed a strident leftist anticolonialist gloss on FLNKS activism which the movement has been largely incapable of and, since 1988, somewhat uninterested in pursuing. While avoiding polemicising, attention is devoted below to the limitations, accomplishments, and implications of FLNKS activism in New Caledonia.

The Limitations of Violence

The foundation of the FLNKS on 24 September 1984 marked the beginning of a period of more forceful Kanak radicalism that broke, although not durably, with the participation in French democratic institutions of its predecessor, the Front Indépendantiste (Independence Front). Lacking the support of a majority of the territorial electorate, for the advancement of its nationalist goals the FLNKS has wavered between pragmatic participation and sometimes violent disruption of the French democratic system.

A new territorial statute promulgated in September 1984 (JO, 1984), and named after Georges Lemoine, then Secretary of State to Overseas Departments and Territories, had failed to live up to Kanak demands. These demands involved immediate independence through a self-determination referendum restricted largely to voters from the indigenous minority of the local population. Instead, the Lemoine Statute offered a referendum for 1989, to be conducted according to French constitutional law, which required the support of an absolute majority of the local electorate before independence could be granted by the French State. Eligible voters would be able to participate regardless of their ethnic origin. Accusing the Socialist Government of being in league with the forces of colonialism in New Caledonia, the FLNKS broke off dialogue with it and called on Kanaks to organise "the conquest of liberty" (FLNKS 1987, 7). In its charter (FLNKS 1987, 6), the formation proclaimed a national liberation struggle. Struggle committees were organised, intended to be at the forefront of Kanak opposition to French rule. They were instructed to conduct "political actions of destabilisation of colonial and neo-colonial interests" (FLNKS 1987, 37).

In its resort to violence, the FLNKS faced a lack of resources which set it apart from the Algerian and Vietnamese national liberation movements of the 1950s. The support base that the FLNKS claimed, New Caledonia's indigenous Melanesian population, was less imposing than the millions from whom the Front de Libération Nationale (National Liberation Front-FLN) and the Viet Minh drew their support. The nationalist agenda of the FLNKS was in addition hindered by the culturally segmented, undeveloped nature of the indigenous population in New Caledonia.

Indigenous Melanesians constituted 42.56 per cent of the territorial population in 1983; 61,870 people out of a total of 145,368 inhabitants (INSEE 1984, 61). Of the 61,870 indigenous Melanesians recorded at that time, 42 per cent were under the age of 15 (INSEE 1984, 62). In spite of being habitually referred to by the FLNKS as "the Kanak people", indigenous Melanesians were in fact far from constituting a homogeneous group. They belonged to 319 tribes (Tjibaou & Missotte 1978, 117-118), speaking between them twenty-seven different languages. Supporters of the FLNKS tended to be found in the least-developed parts of New Caledonia. In 1983, 73 per cent of indigenous Melanesians (INSEE 1984, 61) lived in tribal societies in the rural hinterland, which relied on collective, subsistence agriculture, supplemented by cash proceeds from seasonal labour. These communities offered an unpromising foundation for the socialist nation-state heralded by the FLNKS.

Melanesian political divisions represented another challenge to the concept of a unified Kanak people. The FLNKS itself was an electoral coalition of five parties, three lobby groups and a trade union. At its foundation, the most prominent member party was the Union Calédonienne (Caledonian Union-UC), the component with the largest following. Alongside the UC stood various minor political parties: Parti de Libération Kanake (Kanak Liberation Party-Palika), Front Uni de Libération Kanake United Kanak Liberation Front-FULK), Union Progressiste Mélanésienne (Melanesian Progressive Union), and the Parti Socialiste de Kanaky (Socialist Party of Kanaky). The lobby groups were the Comité des terres de la côte ouest (West Coast Land Committee), Comité Pierre Declercq (Pierre Declercq Committee), and the Groupe des femmes kanakes et exploitées en lutte (Group of Exploited, Struggling Kanak Women). The sole trade union member was the Union des Syndicats des Travailleurs Kanaks et Exploités (Syndical Union of Exploited Kanak Workers-USTKE). While a large majority of indigenous Melanesian voters backed the concept of Kanak sovereignty, not all of them supported the FLNKS. Libération Kanake Socialiste (Kanak Socialist Liberation-LKS) is a minor nationalist party which has rejected the FLNKS's claim to represent the Kanak people.

Still other Melanesians, estimated in 1985 to constitute around 20 per cent of indigenous voters (Le Monde, 3 October 1985), rejected Kanak nationalism in preference to French loyalist parties. Melanesian loyalists voted with the non-indigenous electoral majority in New Caledonia. Since the foundation of the FLNKS, French loyalists, whether of Melanesian, Polynesian, Asian or European origin, have repeatedly accorded the RPCR an absolute majority of seats in the Territorial Congress, the local parliament. The RPCR was created by a mix of conservative groups and individuals. Of New Caledonia's parties it has the largest electoral following. It has close ties with the metropolitan French Rassemblement Pour la République (Assembly For the Republic-RPR), the latest incarnation in a long line of French Gaullist political parties, but is an independent formation. Although the RPCR's three representatives in the French Parliament (two deputies and a senator) sit on the RPR benches, they have differed with the RPR over some aspects of New Caledonian policy. French loyalist electoral predominance has frustrated Kanak hopes of gaining independence via the ballot box.

Frustration at its inability to erode loyalist electoral dominance was the reason why the FLNKS decided to boycott the territorial elections in 1984. But drawn from largely rural support among a population of under 62,000 indigenous Melanesians, the formation controlled insubstantial human resources for its national liberation struggle. Although no statistics exist concerning the number of FLNKS activists who participated in militant protests, in 1984 and in 1988 probably no more than several hundred Kanaks operated at the sharp end of conflict. These militants tended not to be very well armed. Many of their number carried privately-purchased shotguns or hunting rifles for which ammunition tended to be in short supply (Gabriel & Kermel 1988, 50-51). The FLNKS is not known to have conducted a general military training programme for its activists, whose only prior contact with military life usually consisted of time spent in French national service.

A select group of Kanaks commonly known as the stagiaires libyens (Libyan trainees) constituted the exception to this rule. In September and October 1984, seventeen activists received six weeks' training of an unspecified nature in Libya, as did nineteen three years later (Fraser 1988, 21). The total of thirty-five trainees involved form the only concrete evidence available of external support for FLNKS activism, which suggests that Libya was not as willing to challenge France in New Caledonia as it had been in Chad. There is no proof that foreign arms were procured by the FLNKS. The organisation's military arsenal was restricted to French weapons Kanak militants stole from rural gendarmeries.

Compared with the militants the FLNKS could muster, the forces of law and order in New Caledonia were substantial. By November 1984, 1300 gendarmes were present, who were reinforced by eight Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (Republican Security Companies-CRS), a peculiarly French species of riot police, the following month . As potential back-up there were 1526 regular army troops stationed in the territory (Libération, 24-25 November 1984). Should numbers already present prove insufficient, reinforcements could swiftly be airlifted from metropolitan France and French Polynesia. In response to the greater tensions of the second FLNKS militant campaign from April 1988, by 1 May over 12,000 men under arms were deployed in New Caledonia, a total which included CRS, gendarmes and regular army troops but omitted the 150 members of Nouméa's municipal police. This figure was the equivalent of one man for every twelve civilians in the territory (Damoclès, April-May 1988).

Under the liberal-conservative government of Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, from 1986 to 1988, the French military countered rural Kanak activism through its policy of nomadisation. Army units were stationed near tribes, ostensibly to assist with rural development projects. Nomadisation was intended to impede any future FLNKS mobilisation both by winning over rural Melanesians and by monitoring Kanak activists (Maclellan 1990, 7). Should armed insurrection take place, rural camps were to serve as strongholds from which military operations could be conducted. The French State in the 1980s had at its disposal ample means to dominate New Caledonia militarily if faced with a local uprising, but rural pacification efforts were intended to lessen the likelihood of this eventuality.

The minority support base of the FLNKS and its slender military means limited the effectiveness of any resort it might have had to armed insurrection. The consequence of a generalised rebellion in 1984 or 1988 would have been reprisals from the French State which could have led to the FLNKS's destruction. To avoid this possibility, the formation employed low intensity violence that did not really live up to its image of a Kanak national liberation struggle.

The Active Boycott of 1984

On 18 November 1984 the FLNKS staged its active boycott of the first territorial elections held under the Lemoine Statute. Kanak voters were told to stay at home, and the FLNKS sought to dissuade French loyalists from turning out with roadblocks, pickets and the occupation of various rural polling stations. This disruption was not widespread enough to force the postponement of the elections, although the resultant abstention rate was 49.87 per cent (Le Monde, 20 November 1984). In the absence of an FLNKS vote, the RPCR largely swept the field, gaining thirty-four of forty-two seats in the Territorial Assembly, as the local parliament was then called. Of the Kanak parties, only LKS participated. It had six territorial councillors elected in the absence of any Kanak competition.

The election boycott marked the beginning of a period of civil disorder in New Caledonia which was to last into 1985. During this period, the FLNKS attempted to invoke feelings of insecurity among French loyalists in rural areas. It was hoped that if sufficiently unnerved, they would desert their properties and what had once been tribal lands would revert back to Melanesian ownership. FLNKS militants burnt down and ransacked isolated homesteads. To isolate rural centres, they set up roadblocks and cut telephone and electricity lines. At Thio, a mining centre on the east coast of the Grande Terre, seven roadblocks were adequate to cut off around 2000 inhabitants from 21 November to 10 December (Le Monde, 29 November 1984, 11 December 1984). In January 1985, a balance sheet of the effects of New Caledonia's troubles from 13 November to 31 December 1984 was compiled by the French High Commission in Nouméa - 107 roadblocks had been erected, both by French loyalists and by Kanaks; ninety-six buildings and cars had been set ablaze; forty-one properties had been vandalised and looted; fifteen bomb explosions had occurred and eighty-six firearms had been confiscated. Eighty-four people, including French loyalists as well as Kanaks, had been interrogated about these events, of whom forty-seven were placed on charges. Deaths in the same period totalled sixteen, all but four of whom were Kanak militants (Libération, 4-6 January 1985). By early 1985, over 2000 people had left the bush to seek security in Nouméa (Connell 1987, 344).

For their boycott, FLNKS militants used harassing tactics which entailed withdrawing and reforming concealed in the bush when met with overwhelming force. Gendarmes and CRS clearing roadblocks would be met with a hail of rocks or sometimes gunfire, but Kanak activists usually dispersed when charged. This occurred on 19 November 1984 at a roadblock near Hienghène, where one gendarme was wounded (NC, 21 November 1984). In some cases, as happened at Ouégoa on 30 November 1984, several hours later the same spot would be reoccupied and new roadblocks erected (Le Monde, 1 December 1984). Kanak methods drew on elements of traditional Melanesian warfare, where victory depended less on winning pitched battles than on gaining the upper hand through tactics of stealth and harassment which would force the adversary to negotiate mutually advantageous peace terms (Douglas 1990, 45-46).

On 1 December 1984 the FLNKS announced the establishment of the provisional government of Kanaky. The régime was a self-appointed one of dubious democratic legitimacy. Its claim to represent Kanaks was contested by LKS, which held that the government's foundation was a rash, provocative act. French loyalists decried the provisional government, with good reason, as an affront to the majority will of the territory's voters, who did not desire independence, still less independence led by the FLNKS.

The term provisional government had an imposing air. In reality this body was a skeletal structure unsuited for governing New Caledonia, even in the unlikely event that it found itself in that position. It was not until the second FLNKS congress at Nakéty on 9 February 1985 that the roles of the provisional government and its subordinate structures were defined in the most general terms (FLNKS 1987, 12-13). The FLNKS had embarked on its national liberation struggle with no detailed vision of what its Republic of Kanaky would be like, and had formulated neither social nor economic policies. The provisional government's president, Jean-Marie Tjibaou, the head of the UC, only belatedly responded to these policy deficiencies.

The provisional government nevertheless held the potential to force concessions from Paris. Its existence posed a considerable embarrassment for the French Socialist Government of Laurent Fabius, which was pilloried by the opposition for not dissolving the FLNKS as a threat to republican law and order. Vociferous remarks were pronounced by various liberal and conservative deputies in the French National Assembly. On 21 December 1984 a former French president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, and six former French prime ministers - Jacques Chirac, Raymond Barre, Pierre Messmer, Maurice Couve de Murville, Jacques Chaban-Delmas and Michel Debré - issued a joint statement condemning Fabius's handling of New Caledonia (Le Monde, 23-24 December 1984). His government was accused of wishing to subvert the constitutional self-determination process and republican law generally in favour of Kanak nationalism, thus endangering France's presence in New Caledonia. During the final weeks of 1984, the FLNKS boycott brought New Caledonia to the forefront of political debate in Paris (Satineau 1987, passim.). Socialist leaders responded by reconsidering the Lemoine Statute. On 4 December, Fabius announced he would be assuming personal responsibility for the New Caledonian portfolio. Three days earlier President François Mitterrand had appointed Edgard Pisani, a Gaullist minister of agriculture in the early 1960s who had since joined the Socialists, as special government delegate to New Caledonia. His brief was to restore law and order and, within two months, to formulate proposals for further reforms which might pacify the FLNKS.

Possibilities for dialogue were nearly cut on 5 December 1984 when an ambush by French loyalists near Hienghène resulted in the death of ten FLNKS activists, including two of Tjibaou's brothers. FLNKS executive members resolved that the coalition would gain political stature by not retaliating (Rollat 1989, 219). Similar restraint was shown after the deaths near La Foa of Eloi Machoro, the FLNKS security minister, and his subordinate, Michel Nonnaro, on 12 January 1985. The official explanation was that gendarme snipers had intended to shoot to wound them, but poor marksmanship had resulted in their deaths. The FLNKS accused Pisani of having given express orders for the assassination of Machoro, who was well-known for having led the blockade of Thio. Pisani denied this, but did not rule out the possibility that the pair's deaths were intentional, as they were vilified by local gendarmes (Pisani 1992, 340-342). Pisani praised Tjibaou for his restraint, although the provisional president of Kanaky was probably not solely making a moral gesture. A realisation that the FLNKS provisional government was of an embryonic nature and was not prepared for civil war may have also played a part in Tjibaou's restraint.

1985-1987: Abandoned dialogue

During reform negotiations in December 1984 Pisani managed to calm tensions by convincing the FLNKS to dismantle its roadblocks. When faced with a rise in Kanak and loyalist protests against his proposals in January 1985 he declared a state of emergency. Although both French loyalists and Kanaks rejected the state of emergency as a punitive measure, it forced a moderation of tempers.

The eventual product of Pisani's time in New Caledonia was the Fabius Statute, promulgated in August 1985 (JO, 1985). The principal concessions the statute offered to the FLNKS were the granting of greater powers of self-administration to New Caledonia's regions, and the provision for a self-determination referendum in 1987. In a remarkable about face, the FLNKS approved the Fabius Statute, even though it manifestly failed to fulfil Kanak demands for an immediate, restricted self-determination vote. At its third congress, held at Hienghène from 25 to 26 May 1985, with some dissension from its minority members the FLNKS abandoned its boycott of territorial institutions and resolved to participate in forthcoming local elections. Tjibaou, leading the largest party within the FLNKS, saw the regional administrative powers offered by the new statute as a mechanism which would enhance Kanak rural autonomy as a preliminary step toward independence. A congressional motion declared "The region, through the engagement of militants in the field and during a transition phase [under the Fabius Statute], will assist in the construction of Kanak Socialist Independence and will concretize the claims of the Kanak People, which will have its own mobilisation as its only guarantee" (FLNKS 1987, 16). The Fabius Statute was pragmatically exploited for the developmental opportunities it offered. This cooperation undermined the credibility of the provisional government and indicated that the FLNKS was not entrenched in its opposition to French institutions (Clark 1987, 93).

FLNKS pragmatism gained it sixteen out of the forty-six seats in the territorial elections held on 29 September 1985. All but one of these seats were located outside the South Region of the Grande Terre, where the RPCR was dominant. Thanks to what the RPCR termed a Socialist gerrymander, the FLNKS gained majorities in three out of four regions, while receiving 28.54 per cent of votes cast in the territory; 20,545 out of 71,995 (NC, 2 October 1985). As a result, the FLNKS gained sixteen of the forty-six seats in the Territorial Congress. In addition, LKS won one seat, with 4597 votes, or 6.39 per cent of votes cast (NC, 2 October 1985). This level of support did not augur well for Kanak chances of gaining majority backing for independence in 1987. The RPCR received 37,147 votes; 51.60 per cent of votes cast. RPCR support formed the greater part of a solid loyalist majority which permitted anti-independence parties to win twenty-nine of the forty-six seats in the Territorial Congress (NC, 2 October 1985).

Following the appointment of the liberal-conservative Chirac Government in Paris after the French legislative elections of March 1986, the new Minister to Overseas Departments and Territories, Bernard Pons, oversaw the organisation of the self-determination referendum proposed by the Fabius Statute. In line with recommendations made by Pisani in 1985, and with the voting criteria for the self-determination referenda organised for Djibouti and the Comoros in the 1970s, the Chirac Government decided that all New Caledonians of voting age who had been resident three years or more could participate, an arrangement likely to result in a majority vote for continued ties with France. As had been the case in 1984, FLNKS calls to restrict the electorate in favour of a majority Kanak vote were rejected as unconstitutional.

From early 1987 the FLNKS remobilised for a peaceful boycott of the self-determination referendum. The provisional government, from which very little had been heard since 1985, was reactivated in February (FLNKS 1987, 44). FLNKS protests gained some media attention, but as its non-violent abstention was of a minority nature, it did not invalidate the self-determination vote (Clark 1988, passim.). On 13 September 1987, the referendum confirmed what had been expected; that a majority of New Caledonian voters preferred to stay French. Of the 58.04 per cent of eligible voters who turned out, 98.30 per cent preferred to remain in the Fifth Republic. The overall abstention rate was 41.96 per cent (Le Monde, 15 September 1987). Pons took the vote as endorsement for the abandonment of the Fabius Statute and proceeded to draw up what became known as the Pons Statute, which was promulgated in January 1988 (JO, 1988a). The Pons Statute was not remarkably different from its predecessor in terms of regional powers, although regional boundaries were redrawn to counteract the representational advantages offered to Kanaks in 1985.

The Active Boycott of 1988

By 1988 the FLNKS had again become disillusioned with non-violent methods and swung back to militancy. Its anti-referendum campaign appeared ephemeral compared with the concessions its earlier boycott had prompted from the Fabius Government. Pons regarded the question of independence as having been resolved once and for all by the referendum and implemented his new statute without paying any great attention to FLNKS grievances. As in September 1984, the FLNKS decided to foment disorder in an attempt to force a reconsideration of government policy in Paris. In spite of the fact that President Mitterrand's first term of office had not led to the fulfilment of Kanak demands, Tjibaou held out the prospect that Mitterrand's reelection and the return of a Socialist government would permit a reconsideration of the question of self-determination. Tjibaou wrote an open letter to Mitterrand in March 1988 expressing the hope that the presidential candidate would be reelected "I hope that you will be able to return in force at the head of the [French] State in order to offer to our people [the Kanak people], and to France, of course, a new era of liberty" (Rollat 1989, 251, Le Monde, 2 April 1988). This stance stood in marked contrast with the repudiation of the Socialists announced by the FLNKS charter in 1984. There were indications that Mitterrand was sympathetic. He had denounced the reforms of the Chirac Government as unnecessarily divisive, and looked forward to the possibility of a reconciliation with the FLNKS (Le Monde, 25 February 1988, 29 March 1988).

The seventh FLNKS congress, held at Tibarama on 20 February 1988, resolved to organise an active boycott to disrupt the first territorial elections to be held under the Pons Statute. The elections were scheduled to coincide with the first round of the French presidential elections on 24 April 1988. The member party which advocated a more militant line was the UC. Other FLNKS members questioned the appropriateness of an active boycott. Doubts existed over whether the struggle committees were equal to the task, and it was feared that militant action might provoke a violent reaction from French loyalists and the forces of law and order (Gabriel & Kermel 1988, 144). As had occurred in 1985 when the FLNKS shelved its militancy to cooperate under the Fabius Statute, in 1988 Tjibaou used the UC's majority following in the formation to push a new line. He apocalyptically presented the boycott to the Front's militants as the last ditch chance for the Kanak people, claiming it entailed "resistance to the undertaking to eliminate the Kanak people. The [FLNKS] mobilisation will be forceful in order to check the elections and the installation of the Pons Statute" (Rollat 1989, 252, Le Monde, 23 February 1988). Tjibaou absolved the FLNKS in advance of any responsibility for what was to occur, blaming the Chirac Government for placing Kanaks in a position where violence seemed the only choice - "The government alone will be responsible for the uncontrollable sliding which is going to occur. There will perhaps be more blood spilt" (Rollat 1989, 252, Le Monde, 23 February 1988). While Tjibaou expressed the hope of reconciliation to Mitterrand, the FLNKS was preparing for confrontation with the French State.

As in November 1984, the boycott failed to prevent the elections from taking place, forcing the closure of just thirty-one of the 139 polling stations in New Caledonia (PIM, June 1988). On the Grande Terre, scattered roadblocks were erected, and there were stand-offs between Kanaks and gendarmes, but the generalised disruption predicted by Tjibaou did not eventuate.

In the Loyalty Islands too the boycott fell short of expectations. Militants on Ouvéa, Lifou and Maré were originally intended to go into action simultaneously but in the event only the Ouvéa struggle committee mobilised (Rollat 1989, 252-253, 261). On 22 April, its members occupied the gendarmerie at Fayaoué, killing four gendarmes in the process. The post's arsenal was seized, and surviving personnel were taken hostage. These hostages were split into two groups, of which one's members were soon released. The fate of the other group, held by militants led by Alphonse Dianou, the head of the UC youth section, became the central issue of a hostage incident. Dispelling any uncertainty, the FLNKS claimed responsibility for the Fayaoué abductions with a statement issued by its political bureau on 24 April - "What has taken place on Ouvéa is not an isolated action by several extremists or uncontrolled terrorists. It consists on the contrary of a unitary action inscribing itself in the framework of the checking of the Pons Statute decided by the seventh congress of the FLNKS at Tibarama" (cited in Gabriel & Kermel 1988, 149).

The RPCR responded by calling for the dissolution of the FLNKS as a terrorist organisation, but Prime Minister Chirac refrained from taking this step. An assault took place after the failure of extended negotiations with Dianou and the FLNKS executive for the release of the hostages. With Mitterrand's assent, on 4 May French troops stormed the grotto where twenty-three captives were still being held. As he was commander-in-chief of the armed forces, President Mitterrand's approval was required for the operation, and had been given on 3 May. Mitterrand stated in an interview a year later that concern for the safety of the hostages was the principal reason for his assent to Chirac's request. Mitterrand downplayed speculation in 1988 that the assault was a ploy by Chirac to attract votes in the second round of the French presidential elections on 8 May, which consisted of a run-off between Mitterrand and Chirac. Mitterrand commented "this fantasia perhaps cost me half a point" (Favier & Martin-Roland 1991, 749). Even assuming the Ouvéa assault was an electoral ploy by Chirac, it failed to tip the electoral balance in his favour Mitterrand was reelected president for another seven years, with 52.06 per cent of national votes cast (Cole & Campbell 1989, 151).

In total twenty-five men, including nineteen Kanak activists, died in the troubles on Ouvéa. Controversy followed over whether the assault was justified, and whether excessive force had been used. An official inquiry concluded that four Kanak activists captured by French forces died either of maltreatment or neglect at the hands of their captors (Legorjus 1990, Plenel & Rollat 1988, passim.).

The Matignon Accords

After these troubles the FLNKS reassessed the utility of maintaining its boycott. The balance sheet of its actions was a death toll that was likely to rise should violent protest continue. Another frustration for the FLNKS executive was that the boycott had exposed certain internal organisational problems. The Front's inability to achieve a full mobilisation of its struggle committees demonstrated both their ill-preparedness, and the unwillingness of certain activists to push confrontation with the French State to the extent that the Ouvéa struggle committee did. As in 1984, the FLNKS was faced with the superior military strength of French forces. The Ouvéa incident displayed again that although Kanak harassment tactics could inconvenience the French Government, if it came to armed confrontation, the French military had superior firepower. Independence via armed insurrection was not a viable option.

The FLNKS boycott of 1988 nevertheless brought about a reconsideration of the New Caledonian portfolio in Paris. The French Socialist leader Michel Rocard described the territory as the most pressing problem which faced him upon his appointment as prime minister in May 1988, and a reconciliation with the FLNKS and the RPCR was to be the first major achievement of his period in office. In May 1988 Rocard dispatched mediators to New Caledonia who opened discussions concerning the territory's future. The delegation found that both French loyalists and Kanaks were reconsidering their previous differences. Tjibaou recognised that Kanak militancy was not achieving results that would justify the continued loss of lives and decided to negotiate with Paris. Previously the RPCR had dismissed the FLNKS as a clique of terrorists, and had denounced past Socialist Governments for pandering to Kanak interests. This time it decided to negotiate both with the FLNKS and the Socialist administration led by Rocard. Jacques Lafleur, the RPCR president, wished to discourage any further violence before it spiralled out of control and was mindful of the fact that with five years of Socialist administration ahead, it would be in the better interests of New Caledonian loyalists to establish dialogue with Paris.

In June 1988 the FLNKS discarded its active boycott to participate in territorial institutions. Tjibaou chose to negotiate a settlement with the Rocard Government which led to the signature of the Matignon Accords, signed in Paris on 26 June and 20 August 1988. Cosignatories to the accords along with Rocard were delegations from the FLNKS, the RPCR, and LKS. The accords themselves consisted of a ten-year development agreement which established conditions for another New Caledonian self-determination referendum, to be held in 1998.

The Matignon Accords were the first, and critics would say the only, major success of Rocard's administration. In persuading New Caledonian loyalists and Kanaks not only to negotiate, but to sign, a document which would establish the basis for the territory's future, Rocard obtained what previous French governments had not. The three territorial statutes which had been adopted from 1984 to 1988 had all foundered on the absence of united New Caledonian support for the various measures imposed by Paris.

As he had in 1985, Tjibaou hoped to use the various development provisions under the new territorial administrative framework to build the infrastructures necessary for the foundation of Kanak independence. Despite having neither the military means nor the electoral numbers to force sovereignty from France, after non-violent protest and lobbying had failed to invoke a satisfactory response, the FLNKS managed to employ militancy in 1984 and 1988 to obtain concessions from Socialist Governments which partially met its demands.

The accords' development arrangements were designed to improve New Caledonia's general economic health and the lot of local Melanesians in particular. From July 1988 to July 1989, Paris received direct rule over New Caledonia while institutions outlined under the Matignon Accords were established. New Caledonia's Territorial Congress was stripped of its powers and the High Commissioner, Paris's representative in Nouméa, assumed executive control.

Acceptance of the Matignon Accords was put to the test in a national referendum on 6 November 1988. In having the accords adopted via referendum rather than by tabling them as a bill before Parliament, Rocard aimed to avoid the prolonged parliamentary debate and opposition filibustering that previous Socialist reforms for New Caledonia had encountered. These delays would have been repeated given the relative Socialist majority in the National Assembly from May 1988 and the dominance of opposition parties in the Senate. Rocard also endeavoured through a direct consultation with all French voters to give the accords greater democratic legitimacy. That legitimacy was undermined by a poor response to the referendum. Amid national indifference to events in New Caledonia, 36.92 per cent of eligible voters went to the polls; the lowest participation rate for any referendum held under the Fifth Republic (Le Monde, 10 November 1988). Of those who participated, 70.47 per cent lodged their acceptance of the Matignon Accords, a group representing only 26.02 per cent of French voters. In New Caledonia, polling was higher and the results there showed evidence of substantial opposition to the Accords. 63.24 per cent of eligible voters there participated, of whom 52.38 per cent deposited votes for the Accords (Le Monde, 10 November 1988). Even though its affirmation was weak, the referendum endorsed the Matignon Accords, which duly became law (JO 1988b).

Although intended by Rocard to promote greater self-government in New Caledonia (Rocard 1989, 72-85), in some respects the Matignon Accords instituted centralisation. The High Commissioner became the head of the territory, a position held by an elected territorial president under the previous statute. Some greater powers were granted to the territory, but the High Commissioner retained considerable authority. His wide range of responsibilities include foreign relations, immigration, defence, law and order, natural resources, currency, civil and commercial law, state administration, most of the education system and the guidance of land reform.

In essence, territorial administrative powers were not greatly changed by the Matignon Accords. As it has since the Fabius Statute, the Territorial Congress acts as the local parliament. This has to be consulted, but not necessarily heeded, by Paris over legislative proposals affecting New Caledonia. Although New Caledonia's four existing regions were dissolved and three new provinces were drawn up, the powers of the former and the latter were similar. The provinces are charged with the maintenance of their public facilities, administrative personnel, aspects of primary and secondary schooling, vocational training, urban planning and housing, local investment, health services, some tax levies, sport and cultural activities, land and tribal law, agriculture, livestock, hunting, forestry and fisheries (High Commission 1992, 7).

Nevertheless the Matignon Accords featured certain innovations. To encourage rural development in the predominantly Melanesian North Province and Loyalty Islands Province, new territorial budgetary arrangements provided favourable annual funding allowances for them. Of provincial recurrent expenditure allowances, 50 per cent is allocated to the South, 18 per cent to the Loyalties, and 32 per cent to the North (High Commission 1992, 11). Of capital expenditure allowances, 40 per cent goes to the North, 20 per cent to the Loyalties, and 40 per cent to the South (High Commission 1992, 11). On a per capita basis, these arrangements are advantageous to the North and Loyalties. Furthermore the accords installed state-provincial development contracts weighted to the advantage of the North and the Loyalties. From 1990 to 1992, 50.7 per cent of development contract funding went to the North, 18.3 per cent to the Loyalties, and 31.0 per cent to the South (High Commission, 33). These contracts established direct provincial links with Paris so that funds would not have to pass through the territorial administration, which was under the majority control of the conservative RPCR.

Another major change concerned electoral reform. The boycott of the territorial elections in April 1988 left the FLNKS without representation in the Territorial Congress. Consequently the signatories to the Matignon Accords agreed that elections would be held under the new provincial structure in June 1989. These elections reaffirmed the conservative majority in New Caledonia, with anti-independence parties gaining thirty-two of fifty-four seats. Of those thirty-two seats, twenty-seven were held by the RPCR, three by the Front National (National Front-FN), and two by a group of FN dissenters, Calédonie Demain (Caledonia Tomorrow). Even though the FLNKS's status as a minority electoral grouping in New Caledonia was reconfirmed, it obtained absolute majorities in the Loyalty Islands, with four out of seven seats, and in the North, with eleven out of fifteen seats. LKS gained one seat in the Loyalties. (NC, 12 June 1989.)

Kanak Development under the Accords

Apart from disillusionment with the shortcomings of militant activism, the FLNKS signed the Matignon Accords because they offered avenues for Kanak development. Since 1985 the formation had been aware of the handicaps of attempting to found a sovereign nation-state with a largely rural, tribal support base in a territory where non-Melanesian immigrants dominate the cash economy. As was the case under the Fabius Statute, the FLNKS's strategy is to employ state development funding to improve the socio-economic standing of areas administered by Kanaks. Such activity will, the theory goes, endow Kanaks with the infrastructure upon which to found the Republic of Kanaky. This strategy's drawback is the inherently dependent position in which it places the FLNKS with regard to the French State. As Kanak development under the accords relies on Parisian funds and expertise, the trend has been to strengthen, rather than to sever, links between the Kanak hinterland and France.

The wave of construction undertaken in the North and the Loyalties since 1989-roads, schools, hospitals, hotels, telecommunications, electrification, port facilities-has enabled improved integration with, and also increased reliance on, the South. Paul Néaoutyine, the FLNKS president, commented ruefully on how the bulk of rural construction work is completed by Nouméan firms, as nearly all the available contractors are based there (Le Monde, 23 May 1991, 17 October 1991). The development funds paid to these firms are transferred to the South rather than circulating in the rural economy.

The lack of skilled labour in the North and the Loyalties stems from the low success rate of indigenous Melanesians in the French education system. By 1989, 0.5 per cent of New Caledonia's Melanesians had obtained tertiary level education, compared with 10.8 per cent of the local European population (INSEE 1989, 40), which in itself constitutes a low figure by metropolitan French standards. The Matignon Accords aim to counteract this inequality through increased funding for all levels of education, and by offering Melanesians greater access opportunities to higher learning. FLNKS leaders are well aware of this problem and have allocated large segments of their provincial budgets to education. The Loyalties allocated 42.11 per cent of its 1993 provincial budget to education (CL, January 1993). A major project set up by the accords is the 400 managers programme, designed to permit 400 young New Caledonians to receive professional training in metropolitan France by 1998. From 1989 to 1991, 75.4 per cent of the young people on this programme were Melanesian (High Commission, 22).

Perhaps unavoidably, young Melanesians are being inculcated with French values through the state education system. In the 1980s at least one French Socialist minister heralded the passing of the French republican ideal of cultural integration. In 1982 Henri Emmanuelli, then Secretary of State to the Overseas Departments and Territories, stated "Nowadays the old idea of integrating natives, dear to the republican ideal, is outmoded" (Emmanuelli 1982, 9). But the concept has displayed considerable resilience by becoming an integral part of the Matignon Accords. Kanak attempts at promoting indigenous values through education have not been particularly successful. In 1985 the FLNKS reacted against the French socialisation of Melanesian youth by setting up the independent Kanak Popular Schools. This was to be a territorial network which would teach traditional culture, thus allowing Kanak youth a greater understanding of its heritage. For want of funds and trained personnel, the schools declined in number to just five by the early 1990s, leaving most Kanak children reliant on French education. The accords have permitted the provinces to assume some control of local education, allowing the North and the Loyalties to promote the use of indigenous languages in primary school curricula, but from secondary level French remains the main language of instruction. In education, as in administration, law, medicine and other fields of professional endeavour, Kanak social advancement under the Matignon Accords lies through the acceptance and mastery of European systems.

With major investments in nickel mining and tourism, the North and the Loyalties have advanced Kanak participation in the territory's cash economy. Traditional Melanesian economic values, centred on tribal subsistence and collective ownership, with barter as the basis for exchange, fail to offer a strong commercial basis on which to build independence. The North has invested in tourism to the extent of purchasing two hotels and a casino in Nouméa, and has authorised the creation of a Club Med resort at Hienghène. In April 1990, with state assistance the North purchased a mining company from Lafleur. At Canala, a local initiative has led to the reopening of closed works and the creation of the Kanak Mining Company, employing sixty locals (Le Monde, 3 February 1993).

Large-scale Kanak investment in mining and high-prestige tourism operations follows well-established patterns of French commercial initiative. As has been argued by the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (1990, passim.), micro-scale investment at tribal level has no such precedent and is more problematic. Whether the implementation of the Matignon Accords can effect change at tribal level to the satisfaction of traditional values has yet to be proven. Rural Melanesians now have better access to roads, schools, hospitals, electricity and running water thanks to public works projects financed under the accords, but questions surround the future status of these people. The major issue is the extent to which the tribal milieu should become westernised in order to conform to French development models promoted to a degree by the FLNKS. Richard Kaloi, the FLNKS President of the Loyalty Islands Province, has asserted that Kanak development lies through the amalgamation of traditional Melanesian and modern European values (CL, September 1992), but their contrasting philosophies do not necessarily mix well. Land reform is symptomatic of differing cultural perceptions between French and Kanak administrators and tribal elders. The French State prefers that private and public land be ceded to Melanesians for cash cropping. This view is at odds with the tribal perception of land as a source of clan prestige regardless of that land's state of cultivation.

Employment is another area where French and Melanesian values clash. State officials wish to see more Melanesians in paid employment so that they might attain similar living standards to those of Europeans. In 1989 the unemployment rate in the Loyalties was 36 per cent, compared with 21 per cent in the North and 12 per cent in the South, figures which reflect the number of rural Melanesians still living largely outside the cash economy (High Commission 1992, 17). This situation was presented by the High Commission as a "pressing challenge" which needed to be addressed (1992, 17). However whether Melanesians living in tribes are really unemployed depends on your cultural values. Those not in full-time paid employment contribute to tribal subsistence economies. Is it preferable that these societies should be further eroded by western values of individual achievement, private ownership and profit? Conversely, should New Caledonia's tribal population experience a materially impoverished existence while the territory's urbanised population enjoys a modern, consumer lifestyle? These questions are not merely rhetorical, but lie at the heart of the developmental choices facing FLNKS leaders in the 1990s.

Kanak Integration or Independence?

Increased Kanak integration with France under the Matignon Accords has not gone unnoticed among Kanaks. Certain among them see this trend as a dangerous threat to prospects for Kanak independence. The most violent expression of Kanak opposition to the FLNKS's signature of the accords came in May 1989. Tjibaou and the FLNKS vice-president, Yeiwené Yeiwené, were assassinated on Ouvéa. Djubelli Wea, the Kanak responsible for their deaths, was a prominent Ouvéan activist who felt that Tjibaou had surrendered to the French by signing the accords (Tristan 1990, passim.). Unconfirmed rumours spread in the FLNKS that FULK, a minor component of the FLNKS, was in some way responsible for the assassination. FULK never signed the accords, believing that negotiating with Paris endangered Kanak sovereignty. FULK has repeatedly berated the rest of the FLNKS for its cooperation with Paris and the RPCR. Since 1988 the party has drifted away from the FLNKS. In January 1992, FULK renamed itself Congrès Populaire (Popular Congress), and advanced a policy platform of broad opposition to the accords (PNB, August 1992). In April 1991 LKS withdrew from the Matignon Accords, claiming that the agreement was leading Kanaks away from independence (Le Monde, 12 April 1991). It later revised this stance, and in December 1993 attended a meeting in Paris of the coordinating committee overseeing the accords (CM, December 1993). Such dissent has not broken FLNKS adherence to the accords; support which has been maintained in spite of minority Kanak criticisms from within and outside its ranks.

The RPCR signed the Matignon Accords because in addition to restoring civil order, the accords' development possibilities might lead Kanaks to realise that their welfare would be better served by remaining French rather than facing the uncertainties of independence. The RPCR sees the accords as the route to further Melanesian integration with the Fifth Republic, and to the eventual abandonment of Kanak nationalism. The FLNKS did not take up Lafleur's offers to redefine the accords and drop self-determination, but he was still confident that come 1998 a majority of New Caledonian voters will reaffirm their willingness to stay French.

Voter eligibility in the 1998 referendum was of great concern to all parties in the Matignon negotiations. It was finally resolved that those on the New Caledonian electoral roll in 1988 and still resident ten years later, as well as the offspring of residents who had attained voting age since 1988, would be eligible to vote. This arrangement represented a major and controversial concession by the FLNKS. At the FLNKS convention at Gossanah in July 1988, Tjibaou was chided for having conceded too much during the first round of accord negotiations in Paris (Tristan 1990, 49-57). The convention resolved that voting should be limited to Kanaks, and to non-Kanaks with parents born in New Caledonia, an arrangement which would have advantaged a majority vote for independence (Commission d'Enquête 1991, 26-32). This condition was rejected by Rocard as unconstitutional, for it would have deprived thousands of local inhabitants of their right to vote. To avoid the collapse of negotiations, the FLNKS was constrained to back down, and accepted the wider voter criteria as the best deal it could obtain.

The 1998 referendum was to exclude several thousand metropolitan French working in New Caledonia, but this exclusion was unlikely to overturn majority opposition to Kanak nationalism. The FLNKS intended to increase its following by projecting itself as a responsible, moderate party advocating multiracial independence. A Wallisian and Futunan party, the Union Océanienne (Oceanic Union-UO), showed interest in this platform. The UO is a minor party which gained two southern seats in the territorial elections of 1989. In 1990 it declared itself open to the concept of New Caledonian independence if the FLNKS recognises the interests of the islands' third largest ethnic group, immigrant Wallisians and Futunans (PR, 8 November 1990). But this response alone would not tip the electoral balance in a self-determination referendum. The UO is a minor, unstable party, which split in February 1994 precisely over the issue of Wallisian support for New Caledonian independence. A minority in the party, which none the less included the UO's two territorial councillors, repudiated support for independence, while the bulk of the party's following broke away to form a new pro-independence formation, the Rassemblement Démocratique Océanien (Oceanic Democratic Assembly) (PR, 21 March 1994). Considering the minority level of voter support for Kanak parties evident in the territorial elections of 1989, and in the legislative elections of 1993, the advent in 1998 of a Republic of Kanaky appeared improbable on electoral grounds alone.

The defeat of the French Socialists in the national legislative elections of March 1993 raised questions about the survival of the Matignon Accords under a second period of what the French term "cohabitation", with the Socialist President Mitterrand continuing his term alongside a liberal-conservative government, led by Prime Minister Edouard Balladur (RPR). Conscious of the calamitous conclusion of Chirac's administration in May 1988, the Balladur Government acted cautiously over New Caledonia. Balladur's Minister of Overseas Departments and Territories, Dominique Perben, reassured the New Caledonian Territorial Congress in June 1993 that calm would be maintained in the territory, and that the Balladur administration would exercise impartial administrative continuity (Libération, 18 June 1993). During the first year of cohabitation continuity was maintained. The return of a liberal-conservative government proved not to be detrimental to the ongoing implementation of the accords.

Although the Matignon Accords surprised certain critics in lasting, it was by no means certain that they would endure until 1998. The potential remained for Kanaks to protest violently against the territorial status quo should they not receive satisfaction from future governments in Paris. Such protest, as in the past, would ultimately be an unproductive route to gaining sovereignty in the absence of majority territorial backing for independence, or the manpower and arms necessary to impose Kanak independence by force. Conversely a majority vote in the referendum in 1998 adverse to their ultimate goal of independence may lead Kanak politicians to accept further development funding from the French State. This cooperation might either be the prelude to a patient wait by Kanak leaders for a combination of political, electoral and demographic conditions likely to allow a successful push for independence, or may prefigure the beginning of a definitive Melanesian cultural, political and economic integration into the Fifth Republic.


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© Wayne Stuart McCallum  July 1998



3. New Caledonia 1998: le retour aux sources

The signatories to the Nouméa Accord, 5 May 1998. In the foreground: Rock Wamytan

(FLNKS), Lionel Jospin, the French Prime Minister, and Jacques Lafleur (RPCR).

On 9 July 1998 the signatories to the Matignon Accords - the FLNKS, the RPCR and representatives of the French Socialist Government led by Prime Minister Lionel Jospin - signed an agreement in Paris which would determine the shape and form of the territorial self-determination referendum scheduled to take place in New Caledonia in November 1998 under the Accords. The referendum, initially conceived at the time of the signature of the Matignon Accords in 1988 as an all-or-nothing vote for or against New Caledonian becoming independent from France, would instead determine acceptance or rejection of gradual devolution of power by Paris to the French Overseas Territory (TOM) , leading to a further vote on independence in the year 2013 or 2018. In a radical departure which required the redrafting of the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic beforehand, a "yes" vote in the referendum scheduled for November 1998 would henceforth entail the introduction of New Caledonian citizenship in 1999. (AFP 9 July 1998) This step had already received the approval of Right and Left wing parties in the Senate and National Assembly, the upper and lower chambers of the French Parliament in the last week of June, and the first week of July 1998 respectively (Le Monde 5-6 July 1998). This support stood as a radical departure from their past formal rejection of any notion of redrafting the Constitution to such an extent at the instigation of Kanak independence leaders.

During the lobbying by Matignon Accords signatories with metropolitan French parliamentary representatives for support of the measures the former had established with the signing of the Nouméa Accord of 5 May 1998, it was admitted by an anonymous party to the multipartite discussions that the proposal to impose a new semi-independent State, possibly one day to be called Kanaky, under the aegis of the French Fifth Republic, prior to possible full independence, entailed a "constitutional horror" (Le Monde 12-13 April 1998). A great deal of discussion, and some concern, was expressed by elected representatives in Paris, as this step involved a radical departure from the traditional concept, embodied in the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, of France as a single, centralised, indissoluble State. In spite of concerns among conservative parliamentarians, particularly in the Senate, the reform was approved, with unreserved support from Jacques Chirac, the French President, eliminating the possibility that a group of conservative parliamentary dissenters might block the measures (Le Monde 5-6 July 1998).

Perhaps surprisingly however, little was made of the fact that such a proposal constituted nothing new. Nor was there any open admission from the assenting parties that when just such a plan had been proposed in 1985 it had been vehemently rejected by the very Kanak and New Caledonian French loyalist leaders who were to become signatories to the Matignon Accords. Also hostile were the major political parties of the French Centre and Right, and Jacques Chirac, then the leader of the neo-Gaullist parliamentary opposition.

The originator of the idea of setting up New Caledonia as a fledgling State within the Fifth Republic, prior to possible full independence at a later date, was Edgard Pisani, President François Mitterrand's special envoy to New Caledonia, who had been dispatched there with the brief to find a resolution to sharpening differences which had led to bloodshed in late 1984 between pro-independence Kanak nationalists and local French loyalists hostile to any loosening of ties with France. His "Propositions for New Caledonia" (hereafter termed the Pisani Plan) were broadcast in Nouméa on 7 January 1985. In them, Pisani proposed a bold, original, concept for the future of the territory termed "indépendance-association" or independence in association with France. To Pisani's dismay, his proposals were not warmly greeted. As is discussed further below, their fate was to be side-lined and eventually shelved as a consequence of a combination of outspoken hostility from political leaders in Nouméa, as well as of shifting political circumstances in Paris.

This essay compares the Pisani Plan with the proposals for New Caledonia's future made by the Nouméa Accord. In doing so it highlights their similarities and considers why, over a relatively short interval of thirteen years, the political actors instrumental in determining the future of New Caledonia shifted from outspoken rejection of the concept of territorial independence in association with France, to not only embracing the concept, but also convincing previously hostile and inert Parisian political figures, not the least of whom was President Chirac, to accept a proposal which entailed redrafting the French Constitution in response to the pro-independence demands of a minority of eligible voters in New Caledonia. (See the article above on the FLNKS for statistics.) Consideration is likewise given of why Pisani personally failed to implement his vision yet, thirteen years later, that very model appears to be a real option for determining the political future of New Caledonia.

The Constitutional Framework

Until the aforementioned developments in 1998, the position of all the major French parliamentary parties on the issue of decolonisation of New Caledonia hinged on observance of the Constitutional framework for such measures. In a general debate on Government policy for the French Overseas Departments and Territories (DOM-TOM) in the French National Assembly on 10 June 1980 Joseph Franceschi, acting as spokesman for the French Socialist Party, outlined a position that few of his Gaullist and Giscardian parliamentary colleagues would have found issue with:

"If an authentic majority, particularly in the Overseas Territories, calls for independence, it must be given without delay. But the great majority of the population, especially in the Overseas Departments, still declares itself to be French. This wish and state of affairs must be taken into account." (Journal Officiel. Comptes rendus. Débats de l'Assemblée Nationale 11 June 1980 p.1679.)

The precondition that Franceschi stated as necessary for territorial independence ("an authentic majority") was quite in keeping with constitutional practice that had been recognised and observed under President Giscard d'Estaing and his predecessors Georges Pompidou and Charles de Gaulle since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958. This position was also in keeping with the outlook that Mitterrand, the founder of the French Socialist Party, held both before and following his election to the office of French President in 1981. Whilst insisting that the Constitution be followed, Mitterrand's position on New Caledonian independence, or that of any other French TOM was "if they want independence, as de Gaulle once said, let them take it". (François Mitterrand: Ici et maintenant. Fayard, Paris, 1980 p.175.

Neither President de Gaulle nor Giscard d'Estaing would have disagreed with French Socialist policy touching on this question as it was outlined by Franceschi and Mitterrand. Originally, Article 76 of the Constitution of the Fifth Republic permitted a French TOM to accede to independence if this option was advocated by a majority in its Territorial Assembly, but only within four months from the promulgation of the Constitution on 4 October 1958, as stipulated in Article 91. Algeria's accession to independence in 1962, after a referendum which indicated that the majority of Algerian voters wished to relinquish French nationality, pushed back the barriers of this constitutional limitation. Not only had the deadline in Article 76 passed, it was in any case inapplicable to French Algeria. Under the Fifth Republic French Algeria consisted of a number of Departments, and was therefore constitutionally ineligible for independence. In allowing Algeria to secede, de Gaulle set a precedent for change. Subsequently a new interpretation of the Constitution was formulated in 1966 by the Gaullist Minister René Capitant. Known as the Capitant Doctrine, this interpretation argued that Article 53 of the Constitution, which mentioned that "the interested populations" had to be consulted over any change in status of French territory, overrode Article 76. It was extrapolated that should it become apparent that a local majority in some part of the Republic favoured independence from France, the French Government should consult this group via a popular referendum. If the majority of voters in such a referendum backed independence, then France would relinquish its sovereignty over the territory in question. This interpretation gained widespread acceptance in government circles. Using this new approach, France granted independence to the Comoros and Djibouti in 1975 and 1977 respectively. Apart from these two TOM, no other part of the Republic had gained sovereignty under the Capitant Doctrine.

This then, was the constitutional setting for the political events in the 1980s which catapulted New Caledonia to the forefront of French political debate.

1985: Kanak independence and Pisani

The foundation of the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) on 24 September 1984, and its announcement of the establishment of the provisional government of Kanaky on 1 December 1984 placed a great degree of pressure on the Socialist Government, at that time headed by Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, to find a solution to the widening differences between Kanaks and French loyalists in New Caledonia. The dispatch of Pisani to Nouméa was the major part of a response intended to assess the situation and formulate a workable solution. A Minister of Agriculture under de Gaulle with a career that subsequently included work on African development issues, and European relations, Pisani assumed functions in Nouméa which were normally the reserve of the territorial High Commissioner. Pisani's introduction to New Caledonia and its situation was a hurried one made immediately prior to his departure, supplemented with a reading of official files during his flight to Nouméa in the presidential jet. This hasty acquaintance with territorial issues was not an auspicious base on which to formulate answers to New Caledonian political divisions. The expectation that these divisions could be overcome by an appointee with no prior experience of the territory, whose knowledge of the issues consisted of a few days spent perusing ministerial files and conversing with officials in Paris, was an optimistic one.

In his favour, Pisani had long experience working on Third World economic development. He had also gained a reputation as an innovative administrator during his time as Minister of Agriculture, helping to modernise the conservative outlooks of various rural pressure groups which stubbornly resisted change. In spite of these specific, technocratic qualifications, his appointment as government delegate to New Caledonia appeared incongruous. Pisani was neither a government employee prior to his appointment, nor an expert on New Caledonia. A high official from the Ministry of the DOM-TOM with experience in New Caledonia might have been a better choice to replace the High Commissioner. It might have seemed odd that Mitterrand should have entrusted this sensitive post to a former Gaullist Minister whose main link with the Socialist Party was his friendship with Michel Rocard, then Minister of Agriculture, and one of Mitterrand's greatest rivals.

Part of the explanation as to why Pisani was appointed delegate to New Caledonia resides in the fact that he was an outsider. Two Socialist Secretaries of State to the DOM-TOM had already had their reputations harmed by the declining fortunes of New Caledonia. If Pisani experienced reverses, this setback would not directly affect the Fabius Government in the same way as if a third Socialist Minister were overseeing the territory. The supervisory role over the New Caledonian portfolio exercised by Fabius demonstrated greater government concern for the territory while also installing a control mechanism over Pisani should he fail. Additionally, as a former Gaullist Minister, it was hoped that Pisani would be more easily able to communicate with New Caledonia's conservatives. Initially this was the case, but it was not to last.

When Pisani announced his Plan on 7 January 1985 he proposed a self-determination referendum for July 1985, thus confirming the government decision in November 1984 to hold one before 1986. Pisani also proposed that the referendum should exclude any voters who had resided in the territory less than three years. This formula had already been used for the self-determination referendum that had led to the independence of Djibouti in 1977. The referendum was only a partial concession to changing FLNKS demands, which by late November 1984 involved a consultative referendum encompassing the Kanak people alone. In spite of RPR and UDF claims from the two major opposition parties, the neo-Gaullist Assembly for the Republic (RPR), and the Giscardian Union for French Democracy (UDF) that the Government was contemplating otherwise, Pisani had no intention of restricting the franchise to Kanaks. The reason was that such a move would have been in violation of Article 3 of the Constitution. Pisani announced that should an absolute majority of voters back independence, the Government would grant it by January 1986. This prospect was regarded with horror by the RPCR, the RPR, and the UDF.

The short length of time involved in the possible path to independence was perhaps the greatest flaw in the Pisani Plan. Rather than calm French loyalist concerns, the presidential envoy served to accentuate them by being seen to offer a precipitate response to FLNKS pressure. The impression in conservative circles in Nouméa was that Pisani and the Fabius Government intended to push the matter of independence through as rapidly as possible, for better or worse. Contrast this with the New Caledonian political context in 1998, where a ten-year development plan, the Matignon Accords, had already laid the basis for local development and self-administration. The political actors involved, including not just the Government and its representatives, but also Kanaks and French loyalists, with support from the parliamentary opposition, reduced the likelihood in 1998 of arousing fears amongst non-Kanaks in New Caledonia by making the forthcoming referendum a vote on approval of further steps to full sovereignty, with a fifteen to twenty year time frame before a final vote on independence. This stands as a marked contrast to six month-period Pisani deemed appropriate prior to a final local vote on the issue of territorial self-determination.

While the concern of the RPCR was one of too much too fast, for the FLNKS disagreement with the Pisani Plan timetable hinged on wanting full independence immediately. For a fledgling political coalition formed less than four months before, which appeared to be succeeding in pressuring Paris into its independence project for New Caledonia, a wait from January until July for independence was six months too long. The longer the momentous day was delayed, the greater the likelihood of the Fabius Government hesitating at some point. This initial concern for haste on the part of the FLNKS stood in contrast with what it ended up settling for - a ten-year postponement of self-determination from 1988 until 1998, during which it agreed to lower the stakes of the referendum scheduled to take place at the end of that period, then a further fifteen to twenty year wait until the final vote on the matter of independence, assuming there is no further agreement to postpone once more in the interim.

Nor was the FLNKS satisfied by the kind of independence that Pisani offered. The form that independence would take, independence in association with France, entailed the continuation of a French presence in New Caledonia. The Republic would maintain control over defence and foreign relations, and those New Caledonians who desired to remain French could do so, while the rest could opt for Kanak citizenship. The Pisani Plan entailed a compromise solution to three interests: the intention of the Fifth Republic to retain a geostrategic presence in New Caledonia; the desire of New Caledonian loyalists to remain French; and the demands of Kanak nationalism. Pisani presented these as the three legs of a tripod, upon which the future of the territory would rest, by partially meeting the interests of the State, Kanaks and French loyalists, to bridge the gap between the interests of French and Kanak nationalism (E. Pisani: Persiste et signe. Editions Odile Jacob, Paris, 1992, p.332). Pisani's compromise was unsatisfactory to both the FLNKS and the RPCR. The FLNKS wanted a fully sovereign Kanaky with administrative authority over the territorial economy, resources, defence and foreign relations. The Front announced that the Pisani Plan represented a neo-colonialist solution, whereby France would retain sovereignty in all but name. (See Roch Pidjot, the FLNKS spokesman at the National Assembly in Journal Officiel. Comptes rendus. Débats de l'Assemblée National 21 August 1985 p.2529.) The RPCR for its part pointed out that once independence was granted, there would be no guarantee that New Caledonia would maintain its association with France, should an FLNKS-dominated government opt to sever links (Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes 11 January 1985). This was a point validated by French experience of decolonisation in Algeria. The Evian Accords negotiated between France and the FLN in 1962 before Algerian independence had granted France the maintenance of certain strategic interests and accorded privileges to French citizens who wished to remain in Algeria after independence, although these provisions were abandoned by the FLN once in power (B. Droz & E. Lever: Histoire de la guerre d'Algérie 1954-1962. 2nd ed. Seuil, Paris, 1984).

Original thinking demonstrated by Pisani over New Caledonia became anathema to local conservatives, who wished to preserve their social and electoral dominance. To Pisani's dismay, his novel solutions to local troubles were to earn him the status of the most reviled government representative in the territory during the 1980s.

Whatever agreement Pisani had hoped to inspire turned improbable as a result of two separate shooting incidents involving the death of a young member of the French loyalist community, and the death of Eloi Machoro, the FLNKS Security Minister, that alienated both Kanaks and French loyalists days after the announcement of the Pisani Plan. Pisani's response was to use his powers as state representative to declare a state of emergency. Public assemblies were banned, a curfew was declared, the transport of arms and munitions was forbidden, and the right to deport anyone deemed a threat to public order was invoked. These were not promising conditions under which to continue negotiations to determine calmly the future of the territory under independence in association with France.

For all his troubles, Pisani remained optimistic about the chances of implementing his plan. By March 1985, a more cautious administrator might have decided to adopt a reticent approach towards talk of independence, given the adverse reaction this word had already provoked. Heedless of the wishes of New Caledonian loyalists, Pisani was by this stage publicly convinced that New Caledonia's independence was historically "ineluctable" (Le Monde 26 March 1985). Pisani had trouble calming political unrest in New Caledonia, although it is difficult to ascertain what solution could have satisfied both local nationalists and conservatives in 1985.

President Mitterrand visited New Caledonia on 17 January 1985 to show his support for Pisani, but instead witnessed the gulf between Pisani and New Caledonians, whether Kanak or loyalist. He responded almost immediately. Mitterrand announced on his return to Paris that Pisani was to rework his proposals. This was the first indication of revisions which were to lead to an overhaul of the Pisani Plan overseen by Fabius. Pisani was aware of hesitations by Fabius over his plan and consequently sent his suggestions for revisions directly to Mitterrand on 26 March (P. Favier & M. Martin-Roland: La décennie Mitterrand 2. Les épreuves (1984-1988). Seuil, Paris, 1991, p.293.). Pisani suggested to Mitterrand that the referendum should take place in September 1985, with independence by the end of 1987 should New Caledonians thus choose. This recommendation was ignored.

The definitive course of action decided on in Paris was announced by Fabius after a meeting of the Council of Ministers on 25 April 1985. The self-determination referendum would be deferred until after the legislative elections in 1986, but would occur before 31 December 1987. The Government postponed the self-determination referendum to calm the situation in New Caledonia, but did so without settling any of the questions of what form the vote would take and who would be eligible to participate.

Pisani was replaced while preparations for the new territorial statute were being debated. He was no longer needed in Nouméa by the Fabius Government, and his continued presence there would only prompt further resentment from his local opponents. The Government adroitly removed him by promoting him to the newly-created post of Minister to New Caledonia, which he assumed on 24 May 1985. This promotion was in effect a face-saving measure on the part of the Government. To dismiss Pisani outright would have constituted an admission of failure. While the official explanation of the appointment was that Pisani was needed in Paris for the preparation of the statute bill, Fabius had already decided his own orientation for the new statute. The post of Minister to New Caledonia itself was exceptional in the extreme - no other French region with fewer than 200,000 inhabitants could claim to have had a Minister devoted solely to its affairs. Under Pisani, the New Caledonian portfolio attained unprecedented status in Paris, to the point of being absurd. The post was to be a short-lived one, with Pisani being transferred to act as an advisor to Mitterrand on 15 November 1985 (Pisani: Persiste et signe p.364.)

The Nouméa Accord, 5 May 1998

The basis for the legislation approved overwhelmingly by the French Parliament in July 1998 was the Nouméa Accord, signed in New Caledonia on 5 May 1998 by representatives Socialist Government acting for the French State, representatives of the RPCR, and of the FLNKS. It is the text of the Nouméa Accord which forms the basis in this section of comparison with the Pisani Plan. Like the Pisani Plan, the Nouméa Accord was not a final legislative text, but an initial proposal for further Government action. While the Nouméa Accord was promulgated as law largely unamended slightly over two months after its signature, the Pisani Plan was to be extensively rewritten and integrated into the Fabius Statute bill of 28 April 1998, some four months after its announcement. This latter itself was subject to various changes, only to be replaced when the liberal/conservative coalition led by Jacques Chirac won the French legislative elections in March 1986.

Due allowance must be made for substantive differences in the two texts. The Pisani Plan was delivered by its author as a speech, while the Nouméa Accord is a much longer text intended as a signed and sealed written statement. Consequently the latter enters into far more detail, whilst lacking the conciseness and style with which Pisani imbued his text. Another major difference is the treatment of the issue of Kanak identity. Mindful of how past Socialist attention to Kanak identity had proved to be a red rag to the French loyalist bull, Pisani diplomatically skirted around the term, and the differences it implied, by referring mainly to "Caledonians" by which he meant not the inhabitants of ancient Scotland but, in colloquial French, the inhabitants of New Caledonia. "Canaque", the traditional French spelling of Kanak, appears only three times in his text. Twice merely in passing, with the remaining occasion being more significant as the reference was made to Kanak concern for reappropriation of ancestral lands. The Nouméa Accord, on the other hand, opens with a 1,500 word preamble establishing the record of colonial injustice in New Caledonia, with sixteen instances of the word "Kanak", in its modern orthography, used invariably as an adjective, pursuant to the dictates of Kanak grammarians. Following this introduction, Article 1 is headed "Kanak identity". Such signs are not merely linguistic niceties. The contention that there was such a thing as "Kanak identity" was hotly denied by RPCR representatives in 1985, who preferred to talk of "New Caledonians" in homage to a presumed territorial ethnic and political homogeneity which was none too apparent at the time.

Under Section 4 of the Preamble, decolonisation as is invoked as "the only means of re-establishing durable social ties between the communities currently living in New Caledonia, allowing the Kanak people to establish new relations with France in line with the realities of our age. [...] The past was a time of colonisation. Today is the time for sharing and readjustment. Tomorrow must be a time for an identity with a common future. France is ready to accompany New Caledonia on this route."

Uncannily, Pisani had already declared on 7 January 1985: "Having occupied a territory in the Antipodes, developed it and colonised it, having helped the indigenous people to develop according to its law, France, a great power which has for centuries played a role in world history, has decided to accompany its nation all the way to the dignity of becoming a State." Pisani declared that such a State would be free, democratic, multi-racial, and entail equality under law for all its inhabitants. As in the Pisani Plan, the image presented in the Nouméa Accord was that of a multi-ethnic New Caledonian community being lead to independence under France's supervision.

In both the Nouméa Agreement and the Pisani Plan, attention is paid to a measured devolution of power from Paris to the territory involving mutual consultation and some flexibility, depending on developments. The Pisani Plan states: "under a totally new definition of its relations with [New] Caledonia, France has no intention of abdicating itself of its responsibilities. France intends to propose to the new State that it assumes them in another manner, by contract and not by statute, by a freely signed agreement between the two parties and not by unilateral decisions made by the institutions of the Republic."

The Nouméa Accord constituted precisely such a "freely signed agreement", although of necessity it was subsequently transformed into an Act of Parliament in July 1998 and thus did come to constitute a statute rather than a contract. The devolution agreed to under Section 4 of the Preamble to the Nouméa Accord was stated to constitute "a sharing of sovereignty with France, on the road to full sovereignty". Or, as Pisani would have put it, independence in association with France on the road to full sovereignty.

Under Section 5 of the Preamble in the Nouméa Accord "shared sovereignty" entails progressively transferring powers from Paris, with no provision for their return. Should the self-determination vote in 2018 (or 2013 at the option of the Territorial Congress) be in favour of independence, New Caledonia will receive full sovereignty. Along with that sovereignty would arrive the status of full New Caledonian citizenship, as was the case under the Pisani Plan. Pisani, like the signatories of the Nouméa Accord, was careful not to avoid declaring this to be "Kanak" citizenship, given the number of non-Melanesians living in the territory. Since then, the FLNKS has, publicly at least, abandoned its original claim for an independent Kanak State for Kanaks and those "victims of history" (descendants of colonists) prepared to assume Kanak citizenship.

With regard to the powers of the new State in New Caledonia, Pisani declared it would have legislative, executive and judicial powers. The Nouméa Accord provides for precisely this in Section 2.3, which establishes the local Executive, to be a form of "collegial Government". This Government is to receive various powers in stages. Under phase 1 of the transfer of competences, the territory will receive responsibility for labour law, and the setting of fines and penalties for violation of laws. Under phase two of the transfer of powers from Paris to New Caledonia (Section 3.1.2), judicial powers are to be transferred, including power over matters of law and order, civil and commercial law, the guiding principles of land law, and regulations relating to local government.

The full list of powers for eventual transfer is very impressive, covering most of the elements normally under the control of a sovereign state. Of particular importance is Section 3.2.5, under which the French State is to transfer control over the mining of strategic materials such as potassium, nickel, chrome and cobalt to New Caledonia. However again, as per the Pisani Plan, prior to the referendum next century, under Section 3.2.1 France will retain control over New Caledonian international and regional relations, while allowing territorial representatives input into discussions and issues of concern to them. The Accord goes on to state that New Caledonia shall be entitled to become a member of certain international organisations, or associate itself with them, as appropriate to its proposed interim status from 1998 to 2018, in addition to having delegations present in Pacific region countries and European Union member countries. Should there be a vote for New Caledonian independence, it may then assume all the trappings of other independent States.

Or, as Pisani had put it thirteen years before:

"New Caledonia shall constitute a sovereign State. [...] A member State of the United Nations, having signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a full member of South Pacific regional organisations, where an independent [New] Caledonia can play an important role, and a member of the group of Africa, Caribbean and Pacific countries which are linked to the European Economic Community by the Lomé Convention."

Regarding the Pisani-style future to be decided on in the territorial vote scheduled for late 1998 there are, as always in New Caledonian politics, signs of dissent. While the RPCR's sometimes ally in the Territorial Congress A New Caledonia for All (UNCT) supported the Nouméa Accord, as might be expected the extreme-right French National Front (FN) opposed the new measures as an affront to the unity of the French nation-state and called on New Caledonian voters to oppose the Nouméa Accord in the referendum (Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes 2 May 1998). However, support for the FN remains limited in the territory, with FN councillors occupying but two of the 54 seats in the Territorial Congress in 1998. Between them the RPCR and UNCT occupy 28 seats.

The FLNKS, while retaining sufficient unity to still be considered a credible dialogue partner for the drafting of the Nouméa Accord, has shown signs of disunity. The USTKE, the trade union member of the FLNKS coalition, kept its distance from the new agreement. This stance was in accordance with a decision made earlier in the 1990s to concentrate its attention on union work rather than politics, but stemmed also from uncertainty over whether the FLNKS was still on a course for independence (Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes 2 May 1998). At the beginning of June 1998, the formation of a new Kanak independence party was announced, the Federation of Independence Co-ordination Committees (FCCI) (Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes 2 June 1998). The FCCI, led by Raphaël Mapou, announced its opposition to FLNKS policies and its openness to multi-ethnic membership. (Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes 2 June 1998) By the time of the convening of the New Caledonian Territorial Congress in June 1998, the advent of the new formation had reduced FLNKS representation from 16 to 13 councillors in the Territorial Congress. With 13 out of the total 54 seats in the Congress, 24% overall, at that time it could not be said that the FLNKS was in a commanding position. Given such a level of electoral representation it is understandable why FLNKS leaders opted to postpone the self-determination vote, originally scheduled under the Matignon Accords for November 1998.

The Path Ahead

To conclude, the Pisani Plan failed in 1985 mainly because it was the work of an outsider to New Caledonian politics who did not have the complete trust of Kanak nationalists and French loyalists. To compound the problem, Pisani was far from an inside man in terms of his relations with President Mitterrand and the Fabius Government. As mentioned above, his designation as the administration's problem solver was in part motivated by a wish that no further members of the Socialist Government might run aground on the issue of how to solve the New Caledonian question. In addition, the unrealistically short time frame for the implementation of independence in association with France as set out by the Pisani Plan was a source of discontent with the FLNKS and RPCR, though for diametrically opposed reasons.

The contrast with the positions of these two formations following French parliamentary approval of the Nouméa Accord on 9 July 1998 could not be greater. The FLNKS, in a major departure from its initial insistence on immediate, full independence, but in keeping with the concessions it made upon signing the Matignon Accords in 1988, deferred the matter of a self-determination vote for another fifteen to twenty years in exchange for the devolution of greater powers to New Caledonia which would place it in a stronger position to face the practicalities of assuming self-rule. In doing so, Kanak leaders have chosen the first of the two paths for the future alluded to in the conclusion to the author's previous article - a patient wait for a combination of political, electoral and demographic conditions likely to allow a successful push for independence. The RPCR, on the other hand, has seen that devolution of administrative power to the territory also offers considerable advantages for it in terms of its stake in New Caledonia's future. At the same time French loyalist leaders are counting on the assumption that due to the minority nature of Kanak electoral support, and notwithstanding shifting political allegiances on the part of the voting public in years to come, the self-determination vote, if and when it happens, will fall in favour of continued ties with France.

The French State, the third leg of what Pisani described on 7 January 1985 as the tripod on which the future of New Caledonia rested, has likewise radically shifted its position on the extent to which it is prepared to act to meet Kanak aspirations for New Caledonian independence. In overwhelmingly accepting the Nouméa Accord, and approving the constitutional amendments required to open the way for New Caledonia to enter into a period of greater autonomy from 1999, the French Parliament, and President Chirac, have gone much further than they were prepared to in the 1980s. Here, Paris has demonstrated the degree of its willingness to maintain good relations in a part of the world that previously had been considered subordinate to the observance of standing constitutional conditions.

However Pisani can claim credit, for which he has not received his due, for conceiving an original solution to the deadlock situation in which New Caledonia found itself at the beginning of 1985. Even though, for the reasons referred to above, the Pisani Plan was not implemented under the supervision of its creator and the Socialist President who appointed him, in the long term it has proven to be the preferred option for determining a consensual, peaceful future involving greater self-rule for the territory. The general concept of "shared sovereignty" under the Nouméa Accord bears more than just a passing resemblance to what Pisani termed "independence in association" with France. When Pisani published his autobiography in January 1992, few would have accorded any great significance to his comments on the last page of the chapter he devoted to his involvement in New Caledonia. From an unspecified document that reached his desk while he was working as presidential advisor to François Mitterrand at the Elysée he quoted the following excerpt:

"Provided that the expression is not used and the name of its author is not cited, it is without doubt the independence in association proposed by Edgard Pisani which, long-term, will constitute the best possible solution for New Caledonia." (Cited in E. Pisani: Persiste et signe p. 369.)

It may be no mere coincidence that this advice appeared to be the subject of quiet observance both in Paris and Nouméa in 1998.


The full text of the "Propositions pour la France" or Pisani Plan as it is referred to above, is to be found in Jean-Yves Faberon: La Nouvelle-Calédonie laboratoire de statuts de territoire d'outre-mer. Publication No. 49 de la Société d'Etudes Historiques de Nouvelle-Calédonie, Graphoprint, Nouméa, 1992 pp.123-135.

The full text of the Nouméa Accord or the "Accord sur la Nouvelle-Calédonie" of 5 May 1998 is to be found at the Web site of the French Secretariat of State to the DOM-TOM:


© Wayne Stuart McCallum  July 1998







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