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New Caledonia Travel Guide

New Caledonia in Crisis

Prior to the May 1981 election of François Mitterrand, the French left had assured the Kanaks that their right to self-determination would be respected. Once in power, the Socialists' promises proved empty. Thus disillusioned Kanak activists reorganized their movement into the Front de Libération Nationale Kanake et Socialiste (FLNKS), and decided to actively boycott the territorial assembly elections of November 18, 1984. Their demand was immediate independence.

Roadblocks were set up and ballot boxes destroyed. Though thousands of transient French cast ballots, voter turnout dropped from 75 percent in the 1979 elections to less than 50 percent in 1984. By default, the anti-independence Rassemblement pour la Calédonie dans la République (RPCR) won 34 of the 42 seats. On December 1, 1984 the FLNKS proclaimed a Provisional Government of Kanaky and tightened its roadblocks throughout the territory. President Mitterrand's personal envoy Edgard Pisani arrived on December 3, 1984 and declared that he would work out a plan for self-government within two months.

Two nights later, on December 5, 1984, a gang of French colons armed with automatic weapons, dynamite, dogs, and searchlights ambushed a group of 17 unarmed FLNKS militants as they drove home up a valley near Hienghène. Stopped by a felled tree and caught in a crossfire, the Kanaks tried to escape across a river. For half an hour the killers hunted them down like animals, finishing off the wounded until the river ran red with blood. In the end, 10 Kanaks died, including two brothers of Jean-Marie Tjibaou, head of the provisional government. French gendarmes stationed five km away didn't bother to visit the scene for 16 hours, although they were called shortly after the incident. A week later, seven of the killers, including members of third- and fourth-generation settler families, gave themselves up and were jailed.

Appalled by this atrocity, Pisani sought a solution that would bring the two sides together in a semi-independent state freely associated with France. On January 7, 1985, Pisani announced a plan calling for a referendum on independence on July 1, 1985, and self-government in association with France from January 1, 1986. France would control defense and foreign affairs, and French citizens would have special status.

Then on January 12, 1985, police sharpshooters shot and killed schoolteacher Éloi Machoro, minister of the interior in the provisional government, and Marcel Noraro, an aide, as they stood outside their rural headquarters near La Foa. (It's believed the same French secret service elements that later planned the Rainbow Warrior bombing at Auckland of July 1985 were responsible for this and other provocations in New Caledonia.) In retaliation, the giant French-owned Thio and Kouaoua nickel mines were blown up by the Kanaks as whites rioted against independence in Nouméa. The FLNKS rejected Pisani's "neocolonial" plan (which the RPCR also strongly opposed for daring to take seriously any notion of independence).

In March 1985, an undaunted Pisani submitted his plan to Mitterrand, and in April French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius announced a new decentralization program featuring greater autonomy, land reform, and a say for the Kanaks in the territory's affairs. The territorial assembly elected in November 1984 was to be abolished, and a 43-seat territorial congress created to represent four regions, northern and central Grande Terre, the Loyalty Islands, and Nouméa. Nouméa would have 18 seats elected by universal suffrage, the other three regions (with Kanak majorities), 25 seats. The congress was to decide on independence before the end of 1987.

After protests that the French population was not properly represented, the number of Nouméa seats was increased to 21 in a 46-seat body. In August 1985, President Mitterrand recalled the French National Assembly from holidays to enact the legislation. Territorial elections took place on September 29, 1985. The pro-independence FLNKS won the three rural regions, while the anti-independence RPCR took Nouméa (more than 80 percent of Kanaks voted for the FLNKS). After this election, the political situation quieted down. Thirty-two people, Kanaks and French, died during the 1984-1985 confrontations.

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