New Caledonia was formally annexed by France in 1853, and Europeans and Polynesians, as well as other settlers, have since made the indigenous Kanak people a minority (27%, 11% and 39% respectively in the 2014 census). The territory was used as a penal colony from 1864 to 1897, and the Kanaks were "excluded from the French economy and from mining work, and ultimately confined to reservations". Between 1976 and 1988, conflicts between the French government and the independence movement saw periods of serious violence and disorder (culminating in the Ouvéa cave hostage taking in 1988), with the emerging Kanak independence movement gaining support from many Kanaks frustrated with their lower socio-economic status and lack of involvement in the economy, seen as problems caused by the French "exploitation". Though GDP per capita (nominal) is high at $38,921 and though New Caledonia is a major producer of nickel, there is significant inequality in income distribution, with many claiming that the mining revenue benefits people outside the territory and its (declining) mining communities.
Since 1986, the United Nations Committee on Decolonization has included New Caledonia on the United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories. The 1987 New Caledonia independence referendum, the first referendum on independence, was held the following year on 13 September 1987, but independence was rejected by a large majority, with 842 people (1.7%) voting for independence and 48,611 people (98.3%) voting to remain a part of France. Many pro-independence groups, such as the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), boycotted the vote. The participation was 59.10%.
The Matignon Agreements, signed on 26 June 1988, ensured a decade of stability. The Nouméa Accord signed 5 May 1998, set in motion a 20-year transition that transferred certain powers to the local government and laid the groundwork for an independence referendum in 2018.
The Nouméa Accord stated a vote must take place by the end of 2018. On 2 November 2017, Édouard Philippe, the French Prime Minister, led a meeting to begin work on the referendum of independence, to be held by November 2018. On 20 March 2018, it was announced that the independence referendum would be held on 4 November 2018.