Concise Political Economy of Kanak Culture and Education in New Caledonia


Dr David Small, University of Canterbury.

The indigenous Kanak people of New Caledonia currently number around 105,000. This is their highest number since French records began but at 39%, it is also the lowest proportion of the population that Kanak have ever been. Thirty-seven years after the last of its Melanesian neighbours obtained independence, New Caledonia remains part of France. With a self-determination vote to be held before the end of 2018, demographics and voting rights have never been more important.

Like their neighbours in Vanuatu and the Solomons, Kanak people are Melanesian, with a clan-based social structure and customary links going back thousands of years throughout la Grande Terre (the main island), the Loyalty Islands and other islands. Kanak people speak 28 distinct languages as well as eleven dialects and a creole, and use French as a common language of communication. No fewer than 13 of these Kanak languages are currently classed as endangered (Moseley, 2010).


Formally annexed in 1853, New Caledonia formed an important part of France’s late 19th century empire. As well as its geopolitical worth in the largely British South West Pacific, New Caledonia was also valued as a penal colony with 21,600 convicts shipped there before the practice stopped in 1897. By then the colony’s mineral wealth was evident, particularly its extraordinary reserves of nickel. New Caledonia is currently the world’s fifth largest producer of nickel.

The colonisation of New Caledonia was among the most brutal in the Pacific, especially on la Grande Terre where Kanak communities were forcibly driven from their lands and confined to small reservations in isolated valleys with poor soil. By 1878, sporadic Kanak resistance escalated to a co-ordinated revolt against a colonial regime that, according to an 1879 report prepared by French General Trentinian, “had not the slightest concern for the natives and had given absolutely no thought to governing them with justice” (Dousset, 1970: 135).

In 1887, le code de l’indigénat (the Native Law) was created, confining Kanak people to reservations, unable to leave without permission from the colonial authorities. By the turn of the century, the Kanak population had fallen to less than 30,000, pre-colonial estimates having ranged from 50,000 to well over 100,000. Reservations had been reduced to barely ten per cent of the land area of la Grande Terre, and customary chiefs who refused to act as functionaries of the colonial regime were removed and replaced by compliant administrative chiefs whose duties included imposing taxes and providing unpaid Kanak labour for public works and settler farms. Describing the impact of this policy, the Customary Senate wrote “… the violence of colonization resulted in the disappearance of clans and chiefdoms, and the displacement of all or part of the populations of tribes and entire regions. The trauma of this violence has permanently marked the customary structures and the people who inhabit them” (Charte du Peuple Kanak: 4). Throughout this period, mission and later tribal schools provided Kanak children with only the most rudimentary instruction, none of which was allowed to be in Kanak languages.

It was only as part of France’s reassessment of its relationship with all of its overseas possessions in the wake of WWII, that the Native Law and other formal restrictions on Kanak people were lifted. It was not until the 1950s that all Kanak adults gained the right to vote, restrictions on Kanak children attending state primary schools were removed, and primary schooling was made free and compulsory. That extent of social and educational exclusion explains why it was not until 1962 that the first Kanak obtained the qualification required for university study, the baccalaureat.

In 1969, a new generation of young Kanak began deploying radical tactics to advance a radical agenda. The most significant challenge to French authority in over 50 years, these activists sparked a Kanak political revival which became a movement for independence, eventually engaging a large majority of Kanak people. Next to the demand for the return of Kanak land, criticism of the French colonial education system was one of the most important issues to mobilize Kanak opposition to French rule. As Kanak radicalism peaked in the mid 1980s, a boycott of French schools was followed by the creation for a few years of an alternative school system, the Kanak Popular Schools (EPK), which replaced French language and what was viewed as colonial ideology with Kanak languages and a philosophy aligned with the movement’s aim of Kanak Socialist Independence (IKS).

Among other factors, Kanak aspirations for independence have been confounded by the effects of a colonial immigration policy designed to keep them in a minority. The settler communities are a multi-ethnic mix of Caldoches (European or mixed race setters who had lived in New Caledonia for many generations) and immigrants from France and many other current or former parts of the French empire including France’s other Pacific territories, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna. The vast majority of non-Kanak oppose independence. In May 1988, escalating conflict over the issue of independence reached a deadly climax when French elite troops used military force to end a hostage stand-off on the island of Ouvéa resulting in the deaths of 19 Kanak activists. The events of Ouvéa were an important part of the context for the tripartite peace agreement known as the Matignon Accords which was signed the following month between the newly elected French Government and leaders of the main pro- and anti-independence groupings. They also formed the backdrop to the assassination of Kanak independence leaders, Jean-Marie Tjibaou and Yeiwéné Yeiwéné which occurred on Ouvéa on the anniversary of the killings, at the hands of a leading Ouvéa activist who was opposed to the Accords. Nevertheless, according to New Caledonian historians, the Matignon accords brought peace and the beginning of an emancipation process after almost a decade of a so called civil war.

The Matigon Accords set out a ten-year process of development to culminate in a  referendum on independence. A decade later, however, with an independence movement unlikely to win a plebiscite and anti-independence groupings wanting to avoid a return to the disruptions of the 1980s, no referendum was held. Instead, the Nouméa Accord was signed, the preamble to which acknowledges that colonisation “harmed the dignity of the Kanak people and deprived it of its identity” and that decolonisation is the way to rebuild social bonds “by enabling Kanak people to establish new relations with France” (Accord sur la Nouvelle-Calédonie, 1998). The Nouméa Accord refers to New Caledonia as a “country” (not just a “territory”) and created a new status of citizenship which forms the basis of differential voting rights between long-term residents and more recent immigrants, a principle that is consistent with UN guidelines on such votes but is hotly contested until today among pro and anti-independence parties in New Caledonia.

New measures in the Nouméa Accord include recognising customary land rights, creating a Customary Senate, and supporting Kanak languages and culture in the education system and in wider society. Since 1999, Kanak languages have been recognised as languages of instruction at all levels of schooling. A number have been introduced as subjects of study, including in 1992 four languages (Drehu, Nengone, Ajië and Paicî) that can be taken as subjects in the baccalaureat. Drehu and Nengone are also taught to Bachelors level at the University of New Caledonia. In 2007, a Kanak Language Academy was established to promote the development of all Kanak languages and dialects in a variety of contexts beyond the education system (Wacalie 2010).

Since the Accords, New Caledonian students have recorded significant across-the-board improvements in educational performance in a New Caledonian school project that aspires to be “adapted to the realities of the country”, acting as “the crucible of common destiny” and  offering to everyone “equal opportunities to succeed” (l’École Calédonienne est en Marche). However, the educational underachievement of Kanak students (and other students with Pacific origins) that was to be targetted by educational reform remains entrenched. The higher the level of qualification, the lower the representation of Kanak students. One exception is the less prestigious technical and vocational baccalaureats, but the under-representation of Kanak students in more academic baccalauréat gérale remains (Hadj et al, 2012) remains. As the gateway to university, this poses an ongoing restriction on Kanak students being able to carry on to higher education. Since the 1980s, a rebalancing policy (rééquilibrage) financed by France has been implemented to promote Kanak access to senior management positions.

In the coming months, a further chapter will be written in the ongoing struggle of the Kanak people – and other New Caledonian citizens – to achieve independence, the outcome of which will likely reflect that the pro-independence parties, reunited as the Socialist Kanak National Liberation Front (FLNKS), do not have an electoral majority. In the longer term, Kanak people are also facing the ongoing challenges of how to strengthen their cultural identity, and how to create an education system that will truly recognise and help them to realise their aspirations as individuals and as a people. The future of everyone who calls New Caledonia home depends on their ability to succeed in this project.


Accord sur la Nouvelle-Calédonie JORF n°121 du 27 mai 1998 page 8039. Retrieved from

Charte du Peuple Kanak – Socle Commun des Valeurs et Principes Fondamentaux de la Civilisation Kanak. (2014) Retrieved from http://www.senat-coutumier. nc/phocadownload/userupload/nos_publications/charte.pdf.

Dousset, R. (1970). Colonialisme et Contradictions: Etude sur les Causes Socio-historiques de l’Insurrection de 1878 en Nouvelle-Calédonie. Paris: Mouton.

l’École Calédonienne est en Marche. Charte d’application de la délibération n° 106  du 15 janvier 2016 relative à l’avenir de l’École calédonienne. Retrieved from

 Hadj, L., Lagadec, G., Lavigne, G. and Ris, C. (2012) Vingt ans de politiques de rééquilibrage en Nouvelle-Calédonie: Démocratisation de l’école mais persistance des inégalités ethniques, Formation emploi, 120 | 2012, 101-125.

Moseley, C. (Ed.). (2010). Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. Unesco.

Vernaudon, J. (2013). L’enseignement des langues kanak en Nouvelle-Calédonie. Hermès, La Revue, 65,(1), 112-118. Retrieved from

Wacalie, F. (2010) La diversite linguistique caledonienne. Retrieved from