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New Caledonia Travel Guide

Ruins of Penal Colony
Ruins of the 19th century penal colony
at Ouro, Isle of Pines.

The People

The 2009 census reported 245,580 people in New Caledonia. The ethnic breakdown of the population has been omitted from this census and all others since 1996 as a question about ethnic origin would reveal the sharp increase in the European population in recent years, something the French government wishes to hush up. The 1996 census noted that the population of that time was 44 percent Melanesian, 34 percent European, 9 percent Wallisian, 3 percent Tahitian, 3 percent Indonesian, and 2 percent Vietnamese. Other Asians, ni-Vanuatu, West Indians, and Arabs made up the remaining 4 percent.

Less than half the Europeans were actually born in New Caledonia. The rest are a mix of French civil servants and their families temporarily present in the territory, French refugees from former colonies in Algeria, Vietnam, and Vanuatu, and recent French immigrants referred to as métros or zoreilles (the ears). The Vietnamese and Indonesians were brought in to work in the mines early this century; by 1921 some 4,000 of them were present.

Of the 21,630 convicts transported to New Caledonia from 1864-1897, just over a 1,000 stayed on as settlers (colons) on land granted them when they were freed. These and other early French arrivals are called Caldoches.

French shopkeepers and small ranchers in the interior are known as broussards, while the 2,500 French who migrated to the territory from Algeria are the pieds noir (black feet). The Caldoches are very friendly, and it's mostly the métros who react arrogantly toward anyone unable to speak their language fluently.

During the nickel boom of 1969-1973, the European population increased in size by a third, and the number of Polynesians doubled. An average of 2,800 French immigrants have arrived every year since 1985, and the proportions of Kanaks and French have been reversed. These migrations are encouraged by the French government to ensure continued French rule, a violation of United Nations resolutions on the norms of conduct for colonial powers in non-self-governing areas. The 1998 Nouméa Accord created a special New Caledonian French citizenship status intended to discourage immigration from France by making it possible to restrict voting and employment rights, but in 1999 the French Constitutional Court ruled that the provision was unconstitutional.

The Kanaks are also known as Ti-Va-Ouere, the Brothers of the Earth. They own all of the smaller islands surrounding Grande Terre and their reservations on the main island. There's a striking contrast between the affluent French community around Nouméa and the poverty of Kanak villages on the northeast coast of Grande Terre and on the outer islands.

Prior to European colonization there were no cities anywhere in Melanesia, but today over 65 percent of New Caledonia's population lives in Nouméa and vicinity, including 80 percent of the Europeans, 85 percent of the Asians, and 90 percent of the Polynesians. The capital is growing fast as regional centers such as La Foa, Bourail, Koumac, and Poindimié stagnate, with populations stuck below the 5,000 mark. With three quarters of the total population living in cities and towns, New Caledonia is the most heavily urbanized entity in the South Pacific. The life expectancy rate at birth (72 years for men, 78 years for women) is the highest in the region, and the infant mortality rate (5 per 1,000) is the lowest.

About 67 percent of the inhabitants are Catholic, 21 percent Evangelical, and 4 percent Muslim, but religion is polarized, with 90 percent of French settlers Catholic, and Kanaks constituting 90 percent of the membership of the two branches of the Église Évangélique.