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Murder on the Beach: New Caledonia's Struggle Against Postcolonial Sectarian Violence

A bewitching sunset does not distract the outcome of a bullet wound. This planet is full of zero-sum conflicts where the political centers of both sides cannot fundamentally find a long-lasting solution. Sunnis and Shias, Israelis and Palestinians, and Pakistanis and Indians may be surrounded by rolling hills, bare deserts, and stunning mountains, but these locales are not the drug that cleanses the mind of hatred and violence. In the Pacific, another flavor of such tension exists. Specifically, the French unique collectivity of New Caledonia where the indigenous, Melanesian Kanak, and the Caldoche (the name for the French who settled on the island for at least a generation) exist in a fluctuating set of tensions.

There are other important groups, such as the French-born in France (sometimes called the Zoreilles), Polynesians from other French Pacific possessions, an interesting Muslim community, an Australian-British contingent, and a mix of Vietnamese immigrants. However, for the sake of expediency and cogent narrative, I will focus on the largest two groups: the Caldoche and the Kanaks. Since the late 1980s, these groups have coexisted relatively peacefully, but with a third and final referendum for independence scheduled for 2022, this tranquil era might regress to past decades of conflict.

When Americans think of the Pacific, images of “bewitching sunsets” in paradise come to mind. Ouvea, an island part of New Caledonia, is a place with such spots. Its lagoons are considered so pristine, beautiful, and biodiverse that they are labeled UNESCO world heritage sites.

Ouvea, however, has been troubled by ugly history in its environmentally beautiful paradise. In 1988, it was at the center of the most dramatic and deadliest event in modern New Caledonian history. In the run-up to French and New Caledonian elections, Kanak militants seized the island’s police station in a firefight, which killed four gendarmes.

The militants, led by Alphonse Dianou, took 27 hostages (they would later release 11 of them) and hid them in a cave (Chappell 202). The narrative from here takes a variety of dramatic twists and turns involving global media, and nearly every major political player in France and New Caledonia at the time. Ouvea, a tiny island was swarmed by hundreds of soldiers looking for the hostages. Two weeks after the initial kidnapping, the French launched Operation Victor to release the hostages. French prime minister Jacques Chirac personally lobbied for an assault of the cave over a negotiated settlement to take a hardline stance on terrorism and to appeal to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s far-right National Front and President Francois Mitterrand signed off on the order to maintain governmental continuity. French special forces, on orders from Minister of Overseas Departments and Territories Bernard Pons carried out the assault on May 4th.

Masked by the noise of helicopters above, over 60 commandos tried to seize the cave by force but were held back by the Kanak militants. After an hour-long gun battle, the shooting subsided. The pause was broken up by another French assault on the cave with smoke grenades which flushed out the attackers and secured the remaining hostages who hadn’t escaped. Once the bodies were counted, 19 militants and two French commandos lay dead, resulting in a final body count of 25 dead.

There was a massive blame game after this tragedy. The French and New Caledonian right blamed the Kanaks and New Caledonian left for inciting this action which they viewed as a terrorist attack while the other side accused the French commando forces of failing to negotiate. Furthermore, they made a convincing case that French soldiers massacred slightly less than a dozen of the Kanak militants after the gunfight ended.

This incident, known as the Ouvea hostage crisis, did not occur randomly. It was the culmination of roughly twenty years of ethnic, political, and social tensions on the island starting from 1968. Already existing tensions were set aflame in the 80s reaching a climactic period from 1984-88 known as “the events.” An estimated 40-80 people were killed during this time and many more were wounded from the countless protests, riots, burnings, and beatings that occurred on all sides. Echoing past French failures to manage anti-colonial insurrections, sporadic fighting in the center of the island and the mining town of Thio caused it to be dubbed “Dien Bien Thio,” referencing the disastrous French defeat to the Vietnamese at Dien Bien Phu three decades earlier (Chappell 196).

In 1984, during another infamous incident of “the Events,” a broussard, the name for rural Caledonians of French origin, ambushed a Kanak convoy. Whether it was a preemptive murder spree or a response to his house being burnt down is debated, but the Hienghene Massacre, as it would come to be known, would result in the murder of ten Kanaks. Demonstrating the extent of death associated with the massacre, two brothers of the Kanak independence movement’s main leader, Jean-Marie Tjibaou, would be killed on the road at Hienghene. In this context, New Caledonia’s “Events'' sound eerily like Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” and Italy’s “Years of Lead”—both of which were happening around the same time.

In a useful but oversimplified version of New Caledonia’s history, one can periodize the 1960s to 1980s as a gradual buildup of tensions that ended in “the Events,” and the late 1980s to today as a de-escalation towards a peaceful state. What caused this transition? What takeaways and mechanisms can policymakers replicate elsewhere? And will the good times of peace and love end?

The beginning of the end of violence in New Caledonia has its origins right before “the Events” began. In 1983, the two main political parties at the time, the RPCR on the right and the FI on the left attempted to broker a mutual agreement for New Caledonia at Nainville-les-Roches (Chappell 187). The agreement had some promising starts, but due to disagreements on a variety of issues (coming more from the RPCR than FI) failed to create any substantive change. After the failure to find a solution and Nainville things tumbled for the worse. The FI, seeing little chance of gaining independence through negotiated settlement, formed the FLNKS, the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front. For the next four years the FLNKS, the RPCR, and the French government never openly fought each other, but they took a variety of political, rhetorical, economic, and social actions to achieve their divergent goals.

Everything changed at Ouvea. The FLNKS were able to get international recognition for their cause, and the election of a socialist government in Paris allowed for a greater conciliatory atmosphere. In the same year as the crisis at Ouvea, the French government mediated talks between the FLNKS under Tjibaou and the RPCR headed by Jacques Lefleur. The culminating agreements and policies resulted in the Matignon Accords, which were accepted by the people in France and New Caledonia through a referendum (Henningham 519).

The Accords increased French investment on the island especially directed to the Kanak-populated north and outlying regions. A scheme was implemented to train mostly Kanak men to be put in highly skilled administrative and technical roles. Finally, a referendum vote was planned for 1998 and residents who lived in New Caledonia for more than ten years were allowed to vote to prevent a French surge of over a few thousand people who could demographically squash any independence effort on the ballot (Henningham 521).

Despite criticisms ranging from absurd to idealistic to incredibly valid, the Matignon Accords were a success. They restored peace to the region and promoted equitable economic development of the island. Another benefit was the functional removal of New Caledonia as a political issue from the toxic and myopic rhetoric of Parisian party politics. Tensions may have existed, but outbursts were small and localized. At the end of the day, the wariness of ethnic conflict imbued the national atmosphere with little desire to fight.

In 1998, instead of a referendum which both the loyalist right and nationalist left did not want, both sides negotiated another accord at Noumea, the capital and largest city in New Caledonia. The current political situation, and the past twenty years of peace have a lot to do with the signing of the Noumea Accord.

The Noumea Accord reshaped the relationship between New Caledonia and the Kanaks with France. For the first time, the French and the loyalist right formally acknowledged the past injustices of colonialism. For those interested, I highly recommend reading the preamble of the Noumea Accord.

Continuing this trend of reconciliation, the agreement detailed new policies to bolster Kanak identity within New Caledonia’s cultural, political, and economic fabric. The Accords also reformed New Caledonia’s government by remaking Caledonian political bodies to be more equitable and embrace a spirit of collegiality. The accords also devolved many powers to the New Caledonian government. France has a say in only five competencies: Justice, policing, national defense, finance, and monetary policy. There is more nuance over who controls what, but everyone agrees that there has been a gradual but visible devolution of power from Paris to Noumea. Finally, the accords allow the New Caledonian legislature to have three referendums on full independence or the current state of autonomy. The disastrous idea of a Caledonian partition was expressly prohibited.

The Noumea Accords were a resounding success. It was approved by the New Caledonian public by a larger margin than the Matignon Accords and part of it was enshrined in the French constitution. Furthermore, it supported Kanak economic growth by creating a framework for expanding nickel production in the Kanak-populated North. Nickel is an incredibly important Caledonian resource. 10 percent of the global nickel reserves are in New Caledonia and it is the fifth-largest producer behind much larger countries like Russia and Australia.

This is the current situation. In 2018 and 2020, the first and second referendums happened. Both times, to the slight dismay of the French and Settler French/loyalist right, independence was rejected by increasingly smaller margins. 57 percent voted no to independence in 2018 and 53 percent did so in 2020. Despite French subsidies of $1.5 billion to the island (of which an equitable amount goes to the Kanaks), and attention from France’s most powerful politicians (i.e.