Adam Dean/The New York Times/Redux

Letter from New Caledonia

by andrew l. yarrow

andrew yarrow a former New York Times reporter, teaches at George Mason University.

Published April 18, 2024


The lush green hills, highlighted by waterfalls cascading down to New Caledonia’s Bay of Yaté, are as idyllic a sight as any in the South Pacific. But just a few kilometers inland lies a massive, far-from idyllic, reddish-brown crater that happens to hold one key to accelerating the global economy’s transition from fossil fuels. The Goro mine — in which Tesla invested in 2021 — is the largest of several mines in the territory that yield nickel, an essential ingredient in lithium-ion batteries.

But I get ahead of myself. Some basics first. New Caledonia, a part of French Polynesia, is about 750 miles east of Australia and 1,100 miles north of New Zealand. The territory is divided into three provinces, the thinly populated North Province and the Loyalty Islands, and the South Province, centered on Noumea where most of New Caledonia’s 270,000 people live.

Nickel mining supports nearly a quarter of New Caledonia’s private-sector jobs, while cobalt and iron ore mining, agriculture, fishing and forestry round out the industrial economy. Tourism — mostly from France, Australia and New Zealand — is also a big deal, thanks to New Caledonia’s pristine beaches and huge barrier reef that lures scuba divers. And the big deal has gotten bigger since the cruise ships discovered the archipelago. A new one can be spotted every few days in Noumea.

All this has brought prosperity to New Caledonia. Per capita GDP has reached a remarkable $37,000 — though this figure offers a misleading picture of living standards because the cost of imported goods is high and a whole lot of the GDP is pocketed by mining interests and well-paid Europeans.

Indeed, while the territory is rich — something like one-quarter of the world’s nickel reserves lie beneath it — all is not wine and roses. For years, French settlers and the government in Paris have coexisted uneasily with the indigenous Kanak population. The pro-independence vote rose from 43 percent in a 2018 referendum to nearly 47 percent in 2020. And anti-colonial sentiment may still be rising — we don’t know because the Kanaks boycotted a third, December 2021 vote due to year-long mourning rites in the wake of Covid-19.

Kanak people, who account for about 41 percent of the population, overwhelmingly support independence, while non-Indigenous “loyalists” oppose another referendum. If anything, those of European ancestry, about one-third of the population, want closer integration with France. The rest of New Caledonia’s people — Indonesians, Vietnamese, ethnic Chinese and other Pacific islanders — appear to be divided.

Kanak leaders argue that French control perpetuates economic inequities that have resulted in an Indigenous unemployment rate of 40 percent and living standards that are one-fourth those of local Europeans. On the other side, the arguments for maintaining the current status are at once economic, geopolitical and rooted in French cultural pride. The nickel industry is, after all, led by foreign companies — notably Eramet, a French mining conglomerate, and the Swiss-owned Glencore. In addition, the French government pours some $1.5 billion a year in subsidies into New Caledonia.

The Kanaks did not suffer their colonization quietly. After an 1878 rebellion, many were herded onto reservations. A larger revolt during World War I, when nearly 1,000 Kanaks were conscripted to fight in Europe, was brutally suppressed.

The geopolitical case for continued French control is anchored on the perceived need to offset growing Chinese influence in the region. Warning of the “Chinese ogre,” Philippe Gomes, a local opponent of independence, declared that France was the only protection against “recolonization.” But not everyone sees China as a menace. A majority of New Caledonia’s exports go to China. And the territory’s Northern Province, politically controlled by a pro-independence party, signed a trade deal with the Yangzhou Yichuan Nickel Company in 2018.

This growing integration into the Chinese sphere of influence is front and center for French officials, who have framed the recent referenda not as independence versus the status quo, but as a choice between Paris and Beijing. “It is not in our interest to be independent,” said Alcide Ponga, president of Rassemblement, the territory’s pro-France party. “We have dinosaurs fighting above us — China and the U.S. — and we are not safe from a conflict in the region.”

However, at least as far as visitors are concerned, France is still winning the culture war. Aside from a few discount shops run by ethnic Chinese, the vibe in Noumea and environs remains decidedly French. Seaside monuments commemorate Charles de Gaulle and the Free French Pacific battalion in World War II. Noumea’s 19th-century neo-Gothic cathedral could have been transplanted from any provincial city in France, and the beach at the Baie des Citrons could be mistaken for the Riviera.

Of course, the French were hardly the first to reach these remote shores. Melanesians are believed to have settled the islands around 1600 BCE, and Captain James Cook, the British explorer, gave New Caledonia its name (Latin for “Scotland” — go figure) when he visited in 1774. The Indigenous people were dubbed Kanaks by European colonists, adapting a Hawaiian phrase “kanaka maoli,” a generic term for the native peoples of Oceania.

The Kanaks did not suffer their colonization quietly. After an 1878 rebellion, many were herded onto reservations. A larger revolt during World War I, when nearly 1,000 Kanaks were conscripted to fight in Europe, was brutally suppressed.

New Caledonians toppled a pro-Vichy governor in September 1940, just months after the Nazis marched into France. Not long after Pearl Harbor, the United States made Noumea the headquarters for its South Pacific fleet because it was beyond the range of land-based Japanese bombers. Some 50,000 U.S. troops were stationed on the island of Grand Terre during the war, doubling New Caledonia’s entire population at the time.

After the war, France granted citizenship to all inhabitants, but that hardly ended tensions between the Kanaks and the French. Several pro-independence parties, including the Caledonian Union and the more radical National Union for Independence, were founded in the 1950s and 1960s. Violence erupted in 1984, as activists formed a rebel provisional government, and two brothers of independence leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou and four others were assassinated.

Despite years of efforts to resolve New Caledonia’s political status through power-sharing, the plot continues to thicken. France has vaguely suggested that another referendum could be scheduled at some distant date, a time frame roundly rejected by Kanak leaders.

Tjibaou signed a deal with France in 1988, creating a path to independence a decade or more down the road. But militants, unhappy with the agreement’s gradualism, assassinated Tjibaou and a colleague a year later, and it took until 1998 to hammer out a deal likely to stick. This agreement set a 20-year timeline for transferring greater powers to native New Caledonians. Shortly after Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France in 2017, Paris agreed to a referendum on independence the following year.

Despite the rejections of independence in this and the two subsequent referenda, New Caledonia has still attained a modicum of self-rule. The current French Constitution grants the right to self-determination to overseas territories and the 1988 accord codified the powers for local governing bodies. But in seeming contradiction, that same constitution still boldly declares that the French state is “indivisible.”

Confused? New Caledonia’s governance is nothing if not complicated. Just like residents of Paris or Bordeaux, all New Caledonians age 18 and older can vote in French and EU elections, while the territory has two deputies in the French National Assembly. But a High Commissioner is appointed by the French Interior Minister to represent the central government, and France still wields considerable authority over government policy.

Back home, New Caledonia has an elected president and a 54-member Territorial Congress. There are also provincial assemblies and a 16-person Kanak Senate. Confusingly, the Congress can enact laws that conflict with French law, particularly in areas relating to taxes, trade, health and labor law. Moreover, the Congress voted to fly the flag of the FLNKS independence movement alongside the French flag, a decision observed considerably more in Kanak areas than in the pricier neighborhoods where European settlers and businesspeople reside. 

What happens next? Pro-independence parties gained a majority in the Congress for the first time in 2021. And Louis Mapou, a French-educated leader of the National Union for Independence, was elected president. So, despite years of efforts to resolve New Caledonia’s political status through power-sharing, the plot continues to thicken. France has vaguely suggested that another referendum could be scheduled at some distant date, a time frame roundly rejected by Kanak leaders.

“We do not want to fall into the trap of neo-colonization,” Laurie Humuni, another pro-independence leader, recently said. “We are taking our claim to the UN to question whether France respected the self-determination rights of the people of Kanaky-New Caledonia.”

If this struggle were simply a footnote to the century-long unraveling of the European global empires, few outsiders would care how the independence struggle of this tiny, isolated corner of the South Pacific played out. But, of course, New Caledonia is entangled in two global struggles — the new Cold War with China and the race to create large, reliably available sources of raw materials needed to end the fossil fuel era. Meanwhile, life goes on. And for foreigners at least, the glorious beaches and the barrier reef brimming with life make New Caledonia tourist heaven.

main topic: Region: Asia
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