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New Caledonia (Sui Generis Collectivity, France)


Last modified: 2023-12-09 by olivier touzeau
Keywords: new caledonia | nouvelle-caledonie | oceania | france |
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[French Flag]

French national flag - Image by Željko Heimer, 22 September 2001

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Presentation of New Caledonia


New Caledonia (196,836 inhabitants in 1996; 18,575 sq. km) is a French sui generis collectivity located in the South Pacific, 1,500 km east of Australia and 1,700 km north of New Zealand. New Caledonia is made mostly of a main island called la Grande Terre (the Greater Land, 400 x 50 km, locally known as le Caillou - the Stone) and the archipelago of Îles Loyauté.
The two main ethnic groups in New Caledonia are the native Melanesians (Kanaks), that represent 44.1 % of the population, and the Europeans (called Caldoches when descending from the French colonists, otherwise called Métropolitains - Métros - or Zoreilles), that represent 34.1% of the population. The other ethnic groups are Polynesians from Wallis and Futuna (9%), Indonesians (2.6%), other Polynesians (2.5%), Viet Namese (1.4%) and Ni-Vanuatu (1.1%).

Early history (until 1946)

New Caledonia was most probably settled by Melanesians coming from Malaysia c. 5000 BP. More than 3000 BP, other immigrants came from the Solomon and Vanuatu islands; Polynesians might also have landed in New Caledonia from the Tonga, Samoa and Fiji islands.
On 5 September 1774, Captain James Cook (1728-1779), the first European to land in New Caledonia, moored during his second Pacific expedition (1772-1775) in Balabio, in the north of the Grande Terre. The landscape reminded him his birth country, Scotland, called by the Romans Caledonia, and he named the territory New Caledonia. On 20 September, he sailed to the southern end of the Grande Terre and discovered Pines Island, today Île des Pins. Other British sailors discovered the Loyalty Islands, named so because the islanders' loyalty; the islands were renamed in French Îles Loyauté.
Britain showed little interest for New Caledonia and did not attempt to colonize it. In 1840, teachers from the London Missionary Society settled on the Îles Loyauté; on 20 December 1843, a French Marist mission, supported by the government and the army, also settled there. The Protestant pastors and the Catholic missionaries then struggled, often violently, for the control of the island and the evangelization of the population. In 1845, the British trader James Paddon purchased the Nou island from a local chief and founded a colony, which he sold to France in 1858.

The French sailors Bruny d'Entrecasteaux (1737-1793) and Huon de Kermadec moored near the Île des Pins on 7 June 1792. Nothing more happened until Jules Dumont d'Urville (1790-1842) was commissioned to map the coasts of New Caledonia. French soldiers landed on the Grande Terre in 1844; following the slaughter of 12 French sailors by Melanesians, Emperor Napoléon III ordered Counter Admiral Febvrier-Despointes to take possession on the name of France of the Grande Terre (24 September 1853) and the Île des Pins (29 September 1853).
From 1853 to 1860, New Caledonia was incorporated to the Établissements français de l'Océanie, administrated from Tahiti. In 1863, the colonial government forbid the teaching of any language but French, mostly to limit the influence of the British pastors. Captain Tardy de Montravel founded the colony of Port-de-France, renamed Nouméa in 1866 to avoid confusion with Fort-de-France in Martinique. Colonization started very slowly, so that the colonial administration decided to grant pieces of land to newcomers; the spoliation of the native started in 1855, when the most fertile lands were declared "unoccupied" and granted to the colonists.
From 1860 to 1885, the territory was ruled by an omnipotent Governor hardly controlled by the very remote French authorities. In 1864, Governor Gillain (1862-1870) unilaterally proclaimed the incorporation of Îles Loyauté to New Caledonia to get rid of the British missionaries; the proclamation was later confirmed by the French government.

Colonization, however, was about to fail. As he did in French Guiana, Napoléon III set up in New Caledonia a penal colony, as provisioned by the Law of 30 May 1854 prescribing the transportation of criminals into the colonies. Due to its remote and isolated location, New Caledonia was used to lock political prisoners. Like in Guiana and to insure populating, the released prisoners were forced to stay on the island as many years as thay had been sentenced, too. The first group of 250 convicts landed in New Caledonia in May 1864. More than 4,300 political prisoners were jailed on the territory after the insurrection of the Commune de Paris in 1871. They were joined by thousands of Algerian Arabs and Berbers who had revolted the same year in the eastern part of Algeria. However, the majority of the convicts were French criminals; from 1864 to its closure in 1897, the penal colony housed more than 20,000 prisoners. In 1870, Nouméa had only 300 inhabitants, including 100 seamen.
After the amnisty laws voted in 1879 and 1880, most of the released convicts came back to Europe. The colonial administration decided to grant to "the most deserving" a "supreme award", that is a piece of land.
The populating of the territory was indeed boosted by the nickel rush (1870), following the discovery of nickel ore by Jules Garnier in 1863. The incorporation of Alsace-Moselle to Germany also favoured emigration to New Caledonia. Article 4 of Decree of 27 May 1884 stated that a piece of land would be granted for free to every (French) emigrant, made of a village plot, a crop plot and a pasture plot. Voluntary emigration, however, was not very efficient and Governor Feillet decided to "import" 500 families, the so-called colons Feillet from European France in 1894. The SLN (Société Le Nickel), founded in 1880, attracted from 1895 to 1900 a lot of immigrants from India and Java, and later Viet Namese. The immigration did not stop during the 20th century, especially with the arrival of Pieds-noirs expelled from Algeria after the independence and of Polynesians from Wallis and Futuna, who are today in greater number in New Caledonia than in Wallis and Futuna.
These successive waves of immigration increased the spoliation of the Melanesians, who progressively lost their land, underground and culture.

Recent history and evolution of the status of New Caledonia

The infamous Code de l'Indigénat, which ruled all the French colonies and denied any elementary right to the native populations, was promulgated in 1887 and abolished only on 7 April 1946. Spoliation caused revolts of the Melanesians in 1878 and 1917; repression was fiercy and the local leaders were exiled on the Île des Pins.
In 1956, the Deferre framework law (loi-cadre) created the status of overseas territory (territoire d'outre-mer). The territory was granted a significant autonomy and was ran by a Government Council presided by the High Commissioner of the Republic. The main political party was then a pluri-ethnic, autonomist party called Union calédonienne, founded in 1953 with the motto "Two colours, a single people". In the 1960s, the nickel crisis and the incrased immigration from Wallis and Vanuatu (then called the New Hebrides) broke the consensus: the Melanesians reclamed the independence of the territory and opposed to the loyalists, who wanted to remain part of France. The loyalists joined the Rassemblement pour la Calédonie dans la République (RPCR), founded by Jacques Lafleur on the model of Jacques Chirac's RPR, whereas the Independentist Front was the first step towards the Front National de Libération Kanak Socialiste, founded in August 1984 by Jean-Marie Tjibaou.

The political crisis broke out in 1984-1985 with a series of riots, demonstrations and ambushes, and the proclamation of the state of emergency. The self-determination referendum organized in 13 September 1987 was boycotted by 94% of the Kanaks. The pressure did not stop increasing; in spring 1988, the independentists took 27 gendarmes hostages in the island of Ouvéa. Prime Minister Jacques Chirac ordered the assault just before the second round of the French presidential election; the result was the death of 19 independentists, four gendarmes and two soldiers. Chirac's successor, the Socialist Michel Rocard, was able to convince the two historical leaders Lafleur and Tjibaou to negotiate; the Matignon agreement were signed on 26 June 1988 and approved in November 1988 by referendum. Once again for petty political reasons, Chirac called for abstention; however, the agreement was approved by 80% of the voters. The new status prescribed by the Matignon agreement stated that a referendum on the organization of the territory should be organized ten years later. On 4 May 1989, during the ceremony celebrating the end of the mourning of the Kanaks killed in Ouvéa, the leaders Jean-Marie Tjibaou and Yeiwéné Yeiwéné were murdered by a Kanak extremist.

In 1998, the Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin organized the negotiation of a new agreement between Jacques Lafleur and Roch Wamytan, representing the FLNKS. The Nouméa agreement, signed on 5 May 1998, prescribed a new status for New Caledonia, which is today a sui generis Collectivity and no longer a Territory. The Organic Law of 19 March 1999 (Loi organique relative à la Nouvelle-Calédonie, #99-209, 19 March 1999, published in the Journal Officiel on 21 March 1999) granted new institutions to New Caledonia: the Congress, the Government, the Customary Senate and the Economic and Social Council. On 1 January 2000, several executive competences were transferred to the Government of New Caledonia. The three main points of the new status are the creation of the Caledonian citizenship, defined by the right of vote at the provincial elections; the right allowed to New Caledonia to have some international action in the Pacific; and the right granted to the Congress to vote local laws (lois de pays).
The self-determination referendum on the status of New Caledonia is scheduled to 2014; all people having been living in New Caledonia for at least 20 years will be electors.


Ivan Sache, 27 March 2006

Status of the flag

Like in other French overseas possessions, the only official national flag in New Caledonia is the French Tricolore flag. There are, however, provisions for the adoption of local symbols in the current status of New Caledonia (as it is the case for French Polynesia).

The Nouméa Agreement, signed on 5 May 1998, states:

1. The Kanak identity
1.5. Symbols
Identification symbols for the country, name, flag, anthem, motto, banknote design, shall be searched in common in order to express the Kanak identity and the future shared among all.
The Constitutional Law on New Caledonia shall include the possibility of changing the name of the country, by a Local Law adopted by qualified majority.
A mention of the name of the country could be added on the identity documents as a sign of citizenship.

The Constitutional Law, signed on 19 March 1999 and prescribing the current status of New Caledonia, states:
Article 5
New Caledonia shall determine freely the identity symbols allowing to show its personality beside the national emblem and the symbols of the Republic. It can decide to change its name.
Such decisions shall be taken in the conditions fixed by Chapter II of Title III [that is by a Local Law] and by a majority of the 3/5 of the members of the Congress.

Quite dormant since then, the search for a common flag was subsequently reactivated, probably not by pure chance. In the 2012 French legislative elections, Rassemblement-UMP, led by Pierre Frogier, lost the two seats allocated to New Caledonia to Calédonie Ensemble, led by Philippe Gomès.
In April 2012, the representatives Simon Loueckhote (one of the signatories of the Nouméa Agreement and founder of LMD, a splinter of R-UMP) and Philippe Michel (Calédonie Ensemble) proposed to establish a "flag special commission"; the proposal was accepted by all the political parties, except the Worker's Party.

The Congress of New Caledonia adopted on 27 December 2012 Decision No. 241 (text), published on 29 December 2012 in the official gazette, "establishing a special commission tasked to collectively search for the flag of the country".
Article 1 quotes Article 1.5 of the Nouméa Agreement (see above). Article 2 states that the commission shall be composed of two representatives of each political group and one representative of each political party seating at the Congress.
The 14 members of the Commission were appointed by Decision No. 255 of 10 January 2013, published on 24 January 2013 in the official gazette. The commission, jointly presided by four members of the political groups represented at the Congress, Léontine Ponga (RUMP), Nadia Héo (Palika), Damien Yéwéné (UC) and Philippe Michel (Calédonie Ensemble), was inaugurated on 16 April 2013 (official communiqué, 16 April 2013; Nouvelle-Calédonie 1ère, 16 April 2013).

Ivan Sache & Pascal Vagnat, 19 August 2013