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French Reaction

In March 1986, conservatives under Prime Minister Jacques Chirac took over the French national assembly from the Socialists. Chirac immediately adopted a hard, anti-independence stance: The concessions granted under the Socialists were to be undone. Chirac's Minister of Overseas Territories, Bernard Pons, recentralized power in the high commissioner by transferring the funds intended for regional development away from the regional councils. The economic agency created to promote development in Kanak areas through soft loans and outright grants was abolished, and land purchased under the Socialists for redistribution to Kanak tribes was turned over to extremist French settlers. French elite troops were stationed at mobile camps next to Kanak villages, the same "nomadization" tactics the French army had used in Algeria and Chad to study and intimidate potential opponents.

These backward steps convinced the South Pacific Forum, meeting at Suva in August 1986, to vote unanimously to ask the United Nations to reinscribe New Caledonia on its list of non-self-governing territories (the territory had previously been on the list until 1947). On December 2, 1986 the U.N. General Assembly voted 89-24 to reinscribe New Caledonia on the decolonization list—a major diplomatic defeat for France. The situation in the territory was to be reviewed annually by the U.N. Committee of 24, focusing international attention on the situation.

Responding to international criticism, the French government held a referendum on independence in the territory on September 13, 1987. The Socialists had proposed a referendum giving voters the option of independence in association with France. Under Chirac the choice was simply complete independence or remaining part of France. The FLNKS insisted that only those with one parent born in the territory (be they Kanak or French settler) be allowed to vote. (Though Kanaks themselves couldn't vote at all until 1953, the 25,000 immigrants who had entered the country between 1969 and 1974 were now to decide its fate.) Chirac insisted that everyone who had been there longer than three years must be allowed to vote. So, with the outnumbered Kanaks boycotting the vote, the result was 98 percent in favor of France.

In October 1987, Pons announced a plan that would redefine the council boundaries to ensure that Kanaks and settlers each controlled two regions, a net loss to the Kanaks of one. Henceforth the regional councils would only be responsible for municipal affairs, road maintenance, agriculture, and folklore. Authority was to be centralized in a 10-member executive council that would replace the territorial congress, overturning Fabius reforms granting the Kanaks limited autonomy in the regions outside Nouméa.

Pons's plan denationalized the Kanaks by claiming that only French citizens existed in New Caledonia; the existing native reserves were to be considered freehold land available for sale to anyone. Kanak claims to land rights and independence were to be considered totally irrelevant. In January 1988, the right-wing French National Assembly voted 289-283 to adopt the Pons Statute. After this the Chirac regime simply refused to negotiate with the Kanaks. By now 14,000 French troops were present in the colony, one soldier for every five Kanaks.

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