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Why France won’t let go of N. Caledonia

James C. Pearce

When empires fall, it is always the parts that ended in bloodshed that stay in our mind’s eye. For Britain, it was the U.S. Revolutionary War and bloodshed in India. Spain lost Mexico and Cuba in a painful humiliating fashion on either side of the 19th century.

As for France, it was the Algerian War, which remains a sore spot to this day. That was until violence broke out in New Caledonia this year. New Caledonia remains one of France’s last outposts in the Pacific, along with French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna and Clipperton Island – what some refer to as the French Pacific Frontier.

Like Australia for the British, New Caledonia began its French occupation as a penal colony. And like Australia today, New Caledonia keeps France in the Pacific game. It is close to Australia and New Zealand, two of France’s allies who are set on curbing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific.

Having these territories certainly helped to foster better relations with Pacific nations. They could share some of their concerns. That is why French President Emmanuel Macron strongly objected to the creation of AUKUS on account of it leaving France out of its collective alliance.

Having spent a lot of time in France, I can assure you their Europeanness is not in question. But France can also claim with some authority to be a Pacific nation. Its territory is vulnerable here. It equally wants to curb China. It has the means to help smaller Pacific nations.    And it would not mind being invited over more often.

I know what you may be thinking: Guam. The U.S. mostly keeps Guam because of its strategic location and it serves as a military outpost. Surely that is what New Caledonia and the other French Pacific territories do for France: provide a security buffer.

Not quite!

The French see New Caledonia and French Polynesia as French. Not as distant faraway paradisiacal lands that, oh how conveniently, speak French. New Caledonians are French passport holders. They have representation in the French Parliament, with two senators and two seats in the National Assembly, which voted to certify the controversial changes to the constitution.

A better comparison would be the Falkland Islands and the U.K. Every British person I know thinks the Falklands are British. They think so much in the same way as they think Cambridge, Bognor Regis (look it up) and Cornwall are British.

Gibraltar is no different. As far as Britons are concerned, that tiny rock at the bottom of Spain is as British as fish and chips. However, not fully British – and Guam is not fully American. Britain and America’s overseas territories have basically zero representation in their respective Houses of Congress and Parliament. They cannot choose their leaders or vote for their national laws.

New Caledonia has that privilege. Some might note that there is still an imperial mindset and outlook. And yes, there is certainly some of that. New Caledonia was conquered in the Second French Empire of Napoleon III. But there is also an idea of the French nation that includes these territories. Like the Falklands and Gibraltar, the thought of giving these territories back to other countries or allowing their independence is absurd. It would not give up the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean, so why New Caledonia?

If New Caledonia is France, though, what happens next? Will the French government listen to its citizens' concerns? Is a wider degree of autonomy warranted? Or, as New Caledonia is part of France, surely French citizens have the right to vote wherever they live in France?    These questions of citizenship, nation and statehood continue to confront France in the 21st century.

As Europe gears up for European elections, the far right has the upper hand. Marine Le Pen, leader of the French far right, has a good chance at becoming president in the next elections.

Her ideas of what the French nation is would surely see the Kanak people relegated to third-class citizens. Macron has a chance to seize the initiative on this issue. If he fails, God only knows what Le Pen would do.    

 Dr. James C. Pearce previously worked at the University of Liverpool and the College of the Marshall Islands, and lived in Russia for almost a decade. He is the author of “The Use of History in Putin's Russia”, and has written on Russian memory politics, historical narratives, education policy and historical anniversaries. Send feedback to


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