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New Caledonia: A future in limbo

Pacific Reflections By Gabriel McCoard

What do submarines and Tesla batteries have in common? France’s role in the Pacific, of course.

Last September, Australia canceled a $66 billion deal to buy French diesel-powered submarines, choosing instead nuclear-powered vessels from the U.S. and Britain. The reason: China. Specifically, China’s expanded navy and maritime reach. Diesel submarines won’t cut it anymore.

A month later, Tesla finalized an agreement to purchase 42,000 tons of nickel for electric batteries from the Goro Mine in Australia’s neighbor, New Caledonia, the overseas French territory that, as the world now knows, will remain part of France for the time being.

A proposed sale of the mine — to a company closer to individuals seeking to remain with France — prompted firebombed buildings, burning cars, and makeshift roadblocks. The term “beleaguered” can aptly describe the place.

James Cook called it “New Caledonia” upon seeing the island chain in 1774. In 1853, France, 17,000 kilometers distant, annexed the islands, seeking minerals and strategic superiority over its long-time adversary Britain, and began sending over its citizens, complete with their philosophies and diseases.

France also sent prisoners; New Caledonia was originally a penal colony, and more than 20,000 convicts became laborers in nickel mines after the discovery of the metal in 1864. The indigenous people, the Kanak, became second-class citizens. Ignoring their culture and social structure, the French confined the Kanak to reservations while their population shrank, the foreigners became wealthy, (aside from Asian laborers), and the Kanak became a minority with the occasional bloody uprising followed by violent suppressions.

World War II brought soldiers from the United States and New Zealand, and a year after the conflict ended, France named New Caledonia an overseas territory, giving it some control over its affairs and bestowing French citizenship upon the natives.

The decades that followed brought a wave of decolonization in Africa and Asia. In the 1970s, an independence movement, the Socialist National Liberation Front, or FLNKS, took root in the islands. The next decade turned violent; the “événements” of 1984-88 resulted in the deaths of about 80 people, and the French military ultimately intervened. The 1988 Matignon Accords created three provinces to try to even the balance of power between those seeking independence and French loyalists, and created the groundwork for the Nouméa Accord a decade later.

In the 1998 Nouméa Accord, France created a transitional government of sorts and expanded self-governance while both sides of the independence divide worked to build consensus on New Caledonia’s future. At the end of this period, the governing body would hold a series of voter initiatives on whether New Caledonia would remain a territory or become fully independent.

On Dec. 12, 2021, the third and final referendum posed the question, "Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?"

FLNKS and the independence faction immediately orchestrated a boycott of the Dec. 12 date, calling for a postponement to September 2022 because of high levels of Covid infections among Kanak communities.

With just under 44 percent of eligible voters casting a ballot, the independence referendum failed. 96.5 percent of voters voted to remain a part of France, with 3.5 percent supporting independence.

Virtually none of the pro-independence Kanaks voted, and French President Emmanuel Macron declared that “France is more beautiful” with the territory.

The question of New Caledonia’s sovereignty is far from over, and negotiations will continue. So too will questions over France’s role in the Indo-Pacific region, and whether the rift over submarines can be mended.

Perhaps France, the largest European presence in the Pacific, will develop closer ties with India. China will undoubtedly continue its interest in the region.

Some things haven’t changed since the 1850s. Competition for resources — by some estimates, New Caledonia holds 25 percent of the world’s nickel reserves — and influence as a strategic advantage is just as much a concern now as it was then, only this time China is a world power, hungry for advantage and aware of its history.

New Caledonia’s future is an inextricable part of this puzzle.

Gabriel McCoard is an attorney who previously worked in Palau and Chuuk State. He is currently weathering the pandemic stateside. Send feedback to

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