The problems of New Caledonia stem from its racial mixture. According to the last census, the Kanaks, the original natives of the islands, numbered 62,000, 43% of the total population. A total of 54,000 whites, 37% of the population, made up the next largest ethnic group. Indians and Polynesians numbered 30,000, 20% of the population.
The Kanaks want New Caledonia to become an independent country run by the Kanaks. The whites, who are concentrated in the capital city of Noumea, want to remain French. Since a relatively large percentage of the Kanaks are below voting age and since the Indians and Polynesians vote usually with the whites, the whites have been able to dominate any election easily.
The staging of the referendum has prompted a surprising amount of open conflict between President Francois Mitterrand, a Socialist, and the conservative [Jacques Chirac]. Mitterrand made it clear several times that he believed it was pointless and dangerously provocative to hold such a referendum. But the Chirac government wanted a clear demonstration that the majority of the people of New Caledonia rejected independence.