The 2014 census results for New Caledonia have been published, showing changes in the ethnic composition of a growing population. These changes are central to the political differences which led to civil war in the 1980s, and which continue now as New Caledonia considers its status after the 1998 Noumea Accord lapses in 2018.

A key factor in the pro-independence struggle during the '80s was the outnumbering of an indigenous population (42.6% of the population in 1983) largely supportive of independence through a conscious policy of immigration of Europeans from mainland France and residents from other French territories such as Wallis and Futuna, who tend to support New Caledonia staying with France.

Noumea, New Caledonia. (Flickr/bruno moure.)

Statistics on ethnic composition have been a vital tool for France. In 1972 the French Prime Minister Pierre Messmer declared that immigration of metropolitan French was the only way to head off the indigenous nationalist claim in New Caledonia. In 2004 the French altered the basis of the census and removed any question about ethnic origin, resulting in a boycott of that census by many indigenous Kanaks. France reinstated the ethnic category question for the following census, but did so in a way which prevented direct comparison with earlier censuses (dating from 1860) by adding 'mixed race', 'Caledonian' and 'non-declared' as non-defined categories (I have made a detailed examination of the effect of these new categories in my book France in the South Pacific, Chapter 4).

Still, the 2014 results provide some general indicators. They show that both Kanak and European proportions of the population have fallen. Kanaks, 51.1% in 1956, constituted 40.3 % of the population in 2009 and reached an all-time low of 39.1% in 2014. Europeans went from 36.7% in 1956 to 29.2% in 2009, and eventually 27.1% in 2014. Small Asian minorities have also fallen (Indonesians from 1.6% in 2009 to 1.4% in 2014; Vietnamese from 1% to .9%; other Asians 0.8 %to 0.4%).

The categories that have grown are those identifying with the controversial new categories introduced in 2009 as 'mixed race' (8.3% in 2009 to 8.6% in 2014), those calling themselves 'Caledonian' (5% to 7.4%), and those preferring not to declare an ethnic identity (1.2% to 2.5%). There was also a small increase in those coming from Vanuatu (0.9% to 1%) and Tahiti (2% to 2.1%).

On its own, the small but steady growth in people seeing themselves as neither European nor indigenous would seem positive, and consistent with the aims of the 1998 Noumea Accord of creating a people with a common destiny. But when considered alongside the sensitive decline in the 'Kanak' category and the manipulation of the categories by France, the picture is, if anything, more blurred.

What this might mean for the future in political terms is unclear. Four local elections have been held under the temporary 1998 Noumea Accord, on a basis of a clearly defined 'restricted electorate' protecting the vote of longstanding residents as at 1988. The next political test will be the final referendum process on independence, set under the Accord to be convened by 2018. This referendum will be based on a larger restricted electorate, including longstanding residents as at 1994 rather than 1988.

The censuses since 1994, including this latest one, have consistently shown an ever-increasing and more diffuse population. Those newcomers either from metropolitan France or other French territories who have not been able to vote in local elections have become increasingly vocal about being excluded, and, as shown by this census, are now far more numerous. There is therefore the potential for them to influence if not the actual vote, then the atmospherics surrounding what is already going to be a sensitive plebiscite.