Modern Imperialism in New Caledonia

By Issy Golding

‘For us, independence is a question of dignity and dignity is non-negotiable’

–  Yeiwéné Yeiwéné

The process of independence is long. New Caledonia is a unique example of the consequences of modern imperialism. Modern imperialism is characterised by soft power, for the commercial gain of the power. It is different from traditional imperialism as it is not entirely dependent on military oppression.[1] Violence of the 1980s accelerated the ‘inevitable’ journey to independence. Recent referendums show the complexities of independence and issues of modern imperialism.  

New Caledonia is a dependent contingency of the French Republic. Colonised by the French in 1853, New Caledonia shares a similar history to that of other colonised states, New Caledonia’s position and structure today is politically different to most other nations. The journey towards independence began in 1998.[2] Violent conflicts broke out in the 1980s, killing many Kanak activists and loyalists. This resulted in a 10-year peace program, supported by the French government. This system intended to restructure the administration systems to re-equalise the region.[3]

There is a clear social and economic divide between the North, South and Island regions. The division defined by the majority population, the South, the economic capital, is mostly European descendants.[4] The North and Island regions are largely Kanak and are economically disadvantaged. The 1998 agreements resulted in around 75% of the budget being redistributed[5]. Thus, promoting the necessary social infrastructure in areas inhabited by majority Indigenous Kanak people. Indigenous, Kanak, people make up 40% of the New Caledonian population today.[6] The policy ended in a series of referendums on independence. The intention was to convince New Caledonians of the benefits of French dependency.[7] New Caledonia’s independence process intentionally appears to be sponsored by its colonial oppressor.

The loyalist ideology suggests that New Caledonia cannot develop without France: “Who could be unaware that only France could support real reforms both by her will and by her means?”[8]. This is not shared by Kanak leaders highlighting the polarisation in New Caledonia. Jean-Marie Tijaou led independence movements through the 1980s civil conflicts. He declared that “Kanaks can only count on themselves for decolonisation”.[9] This ideological division highlights the importance of the referendum.

The movement towards independence began with the gradual shift of administration processes and governmental responsibilities. New Caledonia would control all of its administration, other than military and sovereignty.[10] This saw a reduction in the need of French public servants. The first referendum was in 2014, the second in October 2020 and the final expected for 2022.[11] The October 2020 vote saw 85% of the country vote on fundamental changes of independence for New Caledonia.[12] It resulted in a slight win for loyalist parties. 52.5% voted ‘no’ to independence, and 46.7% voted ‘yes’. This was up from 2018 which had a 43% vote.[13] This highlights a greater voter turn out. 2022 will likely see a simple majority, beginning the process of independence.

The era of settler colonialism that dictated the history of New Caledonia has ended. An era of modern imperialism has begun, and it continues to show that New Caledonia remains dependent on France.[14] Approximately one-fifth of New Caledonia’s GDP is from France’s aid through bilateral agreements. The French Republic utilises financial ‘soft power’ to develop the New Caledonian state. This appears an altruistic act for the benefit of the greater global community.[15] It is clear that development aids global stability. 

Critics of this form of aid note that it is often given under manipulative presumptions.[16] This presumes that alignment with Western style government are a sign of development. This global homogeneity perpetuates imperialist ideas. It assumes that Kanak should adhere to French spheres of influence and governmental norms. France’s use of economic aid discourages New Caledonian innovation. It promotes economic dependency, propping itself on the finances of France. A popular New Caledonian song declares “Who’s the one to pay? The French government pays!”. New Caledonia is in a position where it is unlikely to develop whilst under the paternalistic care of France.

Emmanuel Macron said in response to the referendum that he sees a “sign of confidence in the Republic” in the result.[17] Humbled by the increase in those supporting independence, he notes that if voters support independence, France will support them.[18] New Caledonia is a unique example of the use of soft power to promote modern imperialism. 

“Land And Independence In New Caledonia”. 1991. Culturalsurvival.Org. https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/land-and-independence-new-caledonia.

Maclellan, Nic. 2019. “Thirty Years On, A Spirit Of Reconciliation In New Caledonia”. Inside Story. https://insidestory.org.au/thirty-years-on-a-spirit-of-reconciliation-in-new-caledonia/.

“New Caledonia Referendum: South Pacific Territory Rejects Independence From France”. 2020. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-54410059.

“New Caledonia Rejects Independence From France For Second Time”. 2020. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/04/new-caledonia-rejects-independence-from-france-for-second-time.

“New Caledonia: French Pacific Territory Rejects Independence”. 2018. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-46087053.

“Non-Self-Governing Territories | The United Nations And Decolonization”. 2020. Un.Org. https://www.un.org/dppa/decolonization/en/nsgt.

Srinivasan, Prianka. 2020. “New Caledonia Says No To Independence For A Second Time”. Abc.Net.Au. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-10-05/new-caledonia-votes-no-to-independence-from-france/12730060.

Sueres, Julien. 2020. “Is Aid A Contemporary Manifestation Of Colonialism?”. Medium. https://medium.com/@juliensueres/is-aid-a-contemporary-manifestation-of-colonialism-ec362f4d7fc4.


[1] Sueres, Julien. 2020. “Is Aid A Contemporary Manifestation Of Colonialism?”. Medium.

[2] “Land And Independence In New Caledonia”. 1991. Culturalsurvival.Org.

[3] Maclellan, Nic. 2019. “Thirty Years On, A Spirit Of Reconciliation In New Caledonia”. Inside Story.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “New Caledonia Rejects Independence From France For Second Time”. 2020. The Guardian.

[6] Srinivasan, Prianka. 2020. “New Caledonia Says No To Independence For A Second Time”. Abc.Net.Au.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “New Caledonia Referendum: South Pacific Territory Rejects Independence From France”. 2020. BBC News.

[9] Maclellan, Nic. 2019. “Thirty Years On, A Spirit Of Reconciliation In New Caledonia”. Inside Story.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “New Caledonia Rejects Independence From France For Second Time”. 2020. The Guardian.

[12] “New Caledonia Rejects Independence From France For Second Time”. 2020. The Guardian.; “New Caledonia Referendum: South Pacific Territory Rejects Independence From France”. 2020. BBC News.

[13] New Caledonia: French Pacific Territory Rejects Independence”. 2018. BBC News; Srinivasan, Prianka. 2020. “New Caledonia Says No To Independence For A Second Time”. Abc.Net.Au.

[14] Sueres, Julien. 2020. “Is Aid A Contemporary Manifestation Of Colonialism?”. Medium.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “New Caledonia Referendum: South Pacific Territory Rejects Independence From France”. 2020. BBC News.

[18] “New Caledonia Referendum: South Pacific Territory Rejects Independence From France”. 2020. BBC News; “New Caledonia Rejects Independence From France For Second Time”. 2020. The Guardian.

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