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New Caledonia Information
By Beachcomber, retrieved from Wikipedia
Nov 3, 2003, 21:23

New Caledonia (Nouvelle-Calédonie in French) is a territory of 18,575 km² (7,172 sq. miles) made up of a main island and several smaller islands, in the southwest Pacific. Population in 2004 is in between 250,000 and 300,000 inhabitants.

The name derives from the Latin name for Scotland. Kanaky is the name favored by the Melanesian independence parties. The word comes from kanaka, a Polynesian word meaning "human" used by Polynesians to call themselves. The word was later used by the French to call all the native inhabitants of the South Pacific Ocean, including the Melanesian (non-Polynesian) native inhabitants of New Caledonia. The word, turned into Canaque in French, became derogative and almost an insult. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the Melanesian native inhabitants started to organize themselves into political parties and ask for independence, this derogative word was turned into a symbol of political emancipation and pride.

Along with other Pacific Ocean's territories of French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna, New Caledonia is part of the French Republic. Its official status is that of a sui generis collectivity (collectivité sui generis), a status unique in the French Republic. New Caledonia was a colony until 1946, then an overseas territory (territoire d'outre-mer, or TOM) from 1946 to 1999. The capital is Nouméa.

Settled by France during the first half of the 19th century, the island was made a French possession in 1853. It served as a penal colony for four decades after 1864.

Agitation by the Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak Socialiste (FLNKS) for independence began in 1985. The FLNKS (led by the late Jean Marie Tjibaou, assassinated in 1989) advocated the creation of an independent state of 'Kanaky'. The unrest led to agreement on increased autonomy in the Matignon Accords of 1988 and the Noumea Accord of 1998.

The unique status of New Caledonia is in between that of an independent country and a regular overseas département of France. On the one hand, a territorial Congress (Congrès du territoire) and a government of the territory have been established, and a devolution of powers is organized by the 1998 Noumea Accord. Key areas such as taxation, labor law, health and hygiene, or foreign trade are already in the hands of the territorial Congress. Further competence will be given to the territorial Congress in the next years. In the end, the French Republic will only remain competent for foreign affairs, justice, defense, public order, and treasury. A New Caledonian "citizenship" has also been introduced: only New Caledonian "citizens" have the right to vote in the local elections. This measure has been extremely criticized, because it creates a second-class status for French citizens living in New Caledonia who do not possess New Caledonian "citizenship" (because they settled in the territory recently). New Caledonia is also allowed to engage in international cooperation with independent countries of the Pacific Ocean. Finally, the territorial Congress is allowed to pass statutes that are derogatory to French law in a certain number of areas.

On the other hand, New Caledonia remains an integral part of the French Republic. Inhabitants of New Caledonia are French citizens, and they carry French passports. They take part in the legislative and presidential French elections, and New Caledonia sends two representatives to the French National Assembly, and one senator to the French Senate. The representative of the French central state in New Caledonia is the High Commissioner of the Republic (Haut-Commissaire de la République, locally known as "haussaire"), who is the head of civil services, and who seats in the government of the territory.

It was decided in the Noumea Accord that the territorial Congress will have the right to call for a referendum on independence after 2014, at a time of its choosing.

The current president of the government elected by the territorial Congress is Marie-Noëlle Thémereau, from the loyalist (i.e. anti-independence) Avenir ensemble party ("Future together"), which toppled the long-time ruling RPCR (Rally for Caledonia inside the Republic) in May 2004. "Future together" is a party of mostly Caucasian and Polynesian New Caledonians opposed to independence but tired of the hegemonic and allegedly corrupt anti-independence RPCR. Their toppling of the RPCR (who was until then seen as the only voice of the European population) was a major surprise, and a sign that the society of New Caledonia is undergoing strong changes. "Future together", as the name implies, is opposed to a racial vision of New Caledonia, opposing Melanesians native inhabitants and European settlers, and is in favor of a multicultural New Caledonia, better reflecting the existence of large populations of Polynesians, Indonesians, Chinese, and other immigrants. Some members of "Future together" are even in favor of independence, but not on the same basis as the Melanesian independence parties.

Political life is complicated by the fact that the indigenous Melanesian Kanak community is now a minority of some 44% (at 1996 census) following earlier population decline and immigration under French rule. The rest of the population is of French descent (34%), known as Caldoches, and also Polynesian (Wallisians, Futunians, Tahitians) (11.5%), Indonesian (2.5%), Vietnamese (1.4%), ni-Vanuatu (1.1%), and other (5.5%).

Censuses are extremely critical to the balance of power in the territory, and the organization of a new census has been regularly postponed since 1996. It is estimated that the population has considerably increased since 1996, notably due to arrivals of people from metropolitan (i.e. European) France. Current population could be as high as 300,000 inhabitants (from 196,836 in 1996, a figure allegedly 10-15% below reality at the time). According to police and airport data, there would be between 1,000 and 5,000 people from metropolitan France arriving in New Caledonia every year. This question is extremely controversial, especially among the Melanesian community. A new census has finally started in August 2004, and results are expected soon. However, due to an intervention by French president Jacques Chirac, questions asking for the ethnicity of people have been deleted, because they were judged in contravention with the French Constitution, which states that no distinction based on ethnicity or religion should be made among French citizens. Consequently, it will be impossible to know the current ethnic balance. Moreover, many people (both among Melanesians and Europeans) have called for a boycott of the referendum, due to the lack of questions on ethnicity, threatening to derail the current census campaign.

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