Colonies in the 21st century (I)

New Caledonia: Violent unrest shakes a remaining colony as clamor for independence grows. Germany also benefits from France’s hold over the archipelago.

PARIS/NOUMÉA/BERLIN (own report) - Violent unrest has sent shockwaves through New Caledonia, one of the remaining colonial territories of the 21st century, which is still controlled by France. On the archipelago, located east of Australia in the southwest Pacific Ocean, sections of the indigenous population are in revolt after the French government decided to introduce a revised electoral law that disadvantages those communities. The reform would ensure a stable majority for the inhabitants who have moved there from France and tend to be politically aligned with Paris. It effectively downgrades the indigenous population to the status of a minority in their own country and, above all, worsens their prospects of decolonisation. New Caledonia is one of those places classified by the United Nations as “non-self-governing territories”, while Paris regards the archipelo as French soil. Under UN policy, a NSGT should move towards decolonisation without delay, but Paris refuses to budge. The islands have considerable geostrategic importance, enabling France to maintain a permanent military presence in the Pacific. The German armed forces have also benefited from the French military presence. If France were to release the colony, China could gain in influence there – a scenario that runs directly counter to Berlin’s strategic interests.

The push for independence

France annexed New Caledonia in 1853, subjugating it as a colony in order to exploit its wealth of raw materials. In 1946 the archipelago was transformed into a French overseas territory. To this day it has a special status within the system of French overseas territories. The push for independence by the indigenous population gained strength in the 1970s and 1980s, but these efforts have not so far borne fruit. In 2018, 2020 and 2021 respectively, three closely contested referenda were held on independence without resolving the conflict between the anti-colonial forces and those islanders who wanted to remain part of the French state. The votes for independence increased from 43.6 per cent in the first poll to 46.7 per cent in the second, which gave supporters hope of achieving a majority in the third referendum. However, their hopes were dashed by the Covid-19 pandemic, which drastically reduced the scope of anti-colonial community for political campaigning.[1] Paris was not willing to postpone the 2021 referendum, which lead to proponents of independence calling for a boycott of the ballot. In the current unrest in New Caledonia, which broke out on Monday, demands for decolonisation have flared up again and the protests are gaining momentum.[2]

Structurally in the minority

The current unrest was triggered by a reform of electoral law being pushed through by the French government. Until now, the rule has been that the indigenous population, whose ancestors have always lived on New Caledonia, have the right to vote, as do those French immigrants who arrived before 1998. This arrangement was intended to prevent the original inhabitants of the colony, with their striving for independence, from becoming a structural minority that can no longer assert their own interests through the democratic process. This is exactly what would now happen when the new electoral law comes into force, since it gives the right to vote to all French citizens who have been resident in New Caledonia for ten years. This is a substantial number. A general estimate says around 25,000 would be added to the electorate.[3] If they are given the vote, a campaign to promote independence through democratic means would most likely be doomed to failure. The electoral reform has even met with fierce opposition in political France, not only from the French left and the Greens but also from several former prime ministers from the liberal spectrum.[4] Macron’s Renaissance party ensured the new law was passed  in the French National Assembly on Tuesday night by voting in alliance with the conservative Les Républicains (LR) and the extreme rightist Rassemblement National (RN).[5]

France: a Pacific power

The possession of New Caledonia has been, and is increasingly, of considerable strategic importance to the French elites. The archipelago is one of two French colonial territories in the Pacific, the second being French Polynesia,[6] that are sufficiently large and strategically well-positioned for projecting power. France maintains a military presence in both New Caledonia and French Polynesia. These bases are key to its ambitious quest to become a major Pacific power. Information from the French government puts the strength of the Forces armées de Nouvelle-Calédonie (FANC) at a some 1,650 soldiers and civilian military personnel. Four warships and several war planes and helicopters are also stationed there.[7] The FANC holds military exercises in and near New Caledonia every two years. Known as Croix du sud, it is the largest humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercise in the South Pacific, but it also serves to rally other Pacific states and European allies behind France’s military leadership. Last year, Germany was also involved in Croix du sud on a small scale.[8] As the West’s power struggle against China rapidly escalates in the Pacific region, Paris has begun to bolster its military presence in the region.

Close combat in the jungle

Germany’s Bundeswehr has, in the past, already taken advantage of the French military presence in its New Caledonia colony. At the beginning of 2020, for example, the army reported on a lengthy training course that took various soldiers from Jäger Battalion 292 from Donaueschingen, in the south of Germany, to New Caledonia in the South Pacific, where the French armed forces operated a “training centre for amphibious operations”:[9] Apparently, “in the first four weeks” they learned “hunting and survival techniques from a local tribe in the mountains”, after which the main “two-week commando course” began. In particular, they practised jungle operations of all kinds, including close combat. In June 2023, the Bundeswehr described how around 20 participants from the National General/Admiral Staff Officer Course (NGASOC, German: LGAN) undertook trips to the Asia-Pacific region to explore “possibilities for, and limits on, the German armed forces’ tasks and contributions” in the region.[10] According to the report, two Bundeswehr general staff officers took part in the Croix du sud and the Équateur maneuvers. Équateur is the name of an exercise which, like Croix du sud, is held by the Forces armées de Nouvelle-Calédonie and is, again, primarily concerned with disaster relief measures.[11]

The power struggle against China

With the serious unrest that has now broken out, independence for New Caledonia has been put back on the agenda. Independence would not only put an end to the French military presence on the archipelago and thus remove one of the two main pillars of France’s military influence in the Pacific. It could also herald a serious economic setback for Paris. For New Caledonia is the fourth largest nickel producer in the world. And nickel is one of the raw materials that are essential for the transition to greener energy. New Caledonia’s nickel reserves are currently exploited by Western companies. Should the colony achieve independence, it is feared by many in France that a new government on the archipelego would withdraw nickel mining concessions from Western companies and transfer them more lucratively to Chinese corporations.[12] In foreign policy terms, too, it is conceivable that an independent New Caledonia could align itself more closely with China in the future. This in turn would be a major setback in the current power tussle with the People’s Republic, not only for France but also for the West as a whole. The fact that the Solomon Islands, which are located somewhat to the north of New Caledonia, are cooperating more closely with China has already triggered anger and exasperation in the West, including Germany ( reported [13]). The determination to present a united front against Beijing means that not only Paris but also other Western governments have an even stronger interest in blocking the decolonisation of New Caledonia.


[1] Charlotte Mestre, Françoise Tromeur: Référendum 2021 : pourquoi le FLNKS souhaite le report de la troisième consultation. 07.10.2021.

[2] Charlotte Mannevy, Mathurin Derel: Nouvelle-Calédonie : “On s’engage tout droit dans une guerre civile”, pour le haut-commissaire de la République. 15.05.2024.

[3] Michaela Wiegel: Schwere Unruhen in Neukaledonien. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 15.05.2024.

[4] Nathalie Guibert: Nouvelle-Calédonie : trois anciens premiers ministres demandent que Matignon reprenne le dossier. 04.05.2024.

[5] Nouvelle-Calédonie : l’Assemblée nationale a adopté la réforme constitutionelle à l’origine des tensions de l’archipel. 15.05.2024.

[6] See also: Maneuvers in East Asia (II).

[7] Forces armées en Nouvelle-Calédonie.

[8] FANC – lancement de l‘exercice CROIX DU SUD 2023. 25.04.2023.

[9] Philipp Riedel: Nahkampf im Dschungel. 30.01.2020.

[10] Simone Meyer: “Blick ins Gelände”: Von Australien bis Japan. 29.06.2023.

[11] FANC – bilan de l’exercice EQUATEUR dans le domaine de l’assistance aux populations victimes de catastrophes naturelles. 09.12.2022.

[12] Thomas Berger: Nickelkrise in Neukaledonien. junge Welt 29.04.2024.

[13] See also: Deutschlands Pazifikambitionen.