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S. Pacific Kanaks ask for self-rule

The political situation is worsening in New Caledonia, the nickel-rich French colony in the South Pacific where recent violence has underscored a struggle for independence.

New Caledonia's indigenous people - Melanesians, known as Kanaks - want to follow the route to independence taken by some of their neighbors, such as Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides).

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But the Kanaks are a minority in their nation - numbering 55,000 of New Caledonia's 140,000 people. And the majority of citizens, led by the 50,000 white Europeans, who have support from most Polynesian and Asian settlers, oppose independence.

Kanaks say it is not their fault that the indigenous people are not a majority in their own country. France, which brought in the settlers, should arrange an electoral system to ensure Kanak dominance, they say.

The Kanaks had hoped that, under France's Socialist administration, they would move swiftly to independence. Instead, France has said internal reforms will be put in place before a decision is taken on independence.

Some Kanak leaders charge that France is dragging its heels on the independence question.

Independent neighboring nations such as Papua New Guinea question France's intentions. They already have been angered by French nuclear tests in the Pacific and now harbor doubts as to whether Paris really intends to grant independence to New Caledonia.

But for most of the French settlers, times are changing too quickly. For the first time a grouping of pro-independence parties controls the territory's assembly. Many settlers see that development this year as part of an ominous slide toward independence.

A small number of right-wing settlers also want independence - under a white government. But most political groupings that represent them want a continued colonial relationship with France, differing only as to the degree of self-government New Caledonia should have.

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A growing fear in Noumea, the capital, is that an organized white resistance to change has taken shape. Some well-informed Noumea sources believe in the accuracy of reports of a white ''underground,'' with roots in the police and army. Some say the whites are waiting for the most appropriate time to instigate more widespread terrorism.

In fact, violence has been increasing here: A prominent pro-Kanak French settler was assassinated last year. Self-styled anti-independence ''commandos'' recently burst into the territorial assembly and attacked several pro-independence members.

Demonstrations of up to 10,000 opponents of independence have been held in Noumea's main square. Anti-independence settler shopkeepers have closed their stores in what were called ''anti-independence strikes.''

Pro-independence rioters, mostly young and unemployed Kanaks, have gone on looting sprees, smashing windows of clothing and perfume boutiques along Noumea's fashionable Rue de Sebastopol. Walls in the city are covered in a vast array of pro- and anti-independence slogans.

For France, the situation is a mine field: Resist independence, and black-led violence appears to be inevitable; agree to independence, and white-led violence is likely to escalate.

Some prominent Kanak leaders acknowledge that, if independent, New Caledonia would still need a strong French military presence to maintain order for a while.

Kanak leaders contend that they do not intend to victimize or expell any group now living in New Caledonia.

A worry for all sides is that, if violence escalates, tourism will dwindle, hurting the island's large resort industry. So far, however, this hasn't happened.

A major concern for France is that New Caledonia's heightened pro-independence agitation will encourage already well-organized pro-independence groups in another Pacific possession - Tahiti.

Many in Noumea believe France will ultimately grant independence to New Caledonia but will try to postpone doing so because the transition period will almost certainly involve an expensive military peacekeeping exercise.

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