Natural growth is responsible for 85% of the population growth, while the remaining 15% is attributable to net migration. The population growth is strong in the Southern province (2.3% per year between 1996 and 2009), moderate in the Northern Province (0.7%), but negative in the Loyalty Islands, which are losing inhabitants (−1.3%).
Over 40% of the population is under 20, although the ratio of older people on the total population is increasing. Two residents of New Caledonia out of three live in Greater Nouméa. Three out of four were born in New Caledonia. The total fertility rate went from 3.2 children per woman in 1990 to 2.2 in 2007.
In 2009, 40.3% of the population reported belonging to the Kanak community, 29.2% to the European community and 8.7% to the community originating from Wallis and Futuna.
The remaining identified communities represented 7.3% of the population, and included Tahitians (2.0%), Javanese Indonesian (1.6%), Vietnamese (1.0%), Ni-Vanuatu (0.9%) other Asian (0.8%) and other (1.0%). 8.3% belonged to multiple communities, 5% declared their community as "Caledonian", and 1.2% did not respond.
The question on community belonging, which had been left out of the 2004 census, was reintroduced in 2009 under a new formulation, different from the 1996 census, allowing multiple choices and the possibility to clarify the choice "other".Most of the people who self-identified as "Caledonian" are thought to be ethnically European.
The Kanak people, part of the Melanesian group, are indigenous to New Caledonia.Their social organization is traditionally based around clans, which identify as either "land" or "sea" clans, depending on their original location and the occupation of their ancestors.
According to the 2009 census, the Kanak constitute 94% of the population in the Loyalty Islands Province, 74% in the North Province and 27% in the South Province. The Kanak tend to be of lower socio-economic status than the Europeans and other settlers.
Europeans first settled in New Caledonia when France established a penal colony on the archipelago. Once the prisoners had completed their sentences, they were given land to settle. According to the 2009 census, of the 71,721 Europeans in New Caledonia 32,354 were native-born, 33,551 were born in other parts of France, and 5,816 were born abroad.
The Europeans are divided into several groups: the Caldoches are usually defined as those born in New Caledonia who have ancestral ties that span back to the early French settlers. They often settled in the rural areas of the western coast of Grande Terre, where many continue to run large cattle properties.
Distinct from the Caldoches are those were born in New Caledonia from families that had settled more recently, and are called simply Caledonians. The French-born migrants who come to New Caledonia are called métros, indicating their origins in metropolitan France.
There is also a community of about 2,000 pieds noirs, descended from European settlers in France's former North African colonies; some of them are prominent in anti-independence politics, including Pierre Maresca, a leader of the RPCR.
The French language began to spread with the establishment of French settlements, and French is now spoken even in the most secluded villages. The level of fluency, however, varies significantly across the population as a whole, primarily due to the absence of universal access to public education before 1953, but also due to immigration and ethnic diversity.
At the 2009 census, 97.3% of people aged 15 or older reported that they could speak, read and write French, whereas only 1.1% reported that they had no knowledge of French. Other significant language communities among immigrant populations are those of Wallisian and Javanese language speakers.
The 28 Kanak languages spoken in New Caledonia are part of the Oceanic group of the Austronesian family.
Kanak languages are taught from kindergarten (4 languages are taught up to the bachelor's degree) and an academy is responsible for their promotion. The four most widely spoken indigenous languages are Drehu (spoken in Lifou), Nengone (spoken on Maré) and Paicî (northern part of Grande Terre).
Others include Iaai (spoken on Ouvéa). At the 2009 census, 35.8% of people aged 15 or older reported that they could speak (but not necessarily read or write) one of the indigenous Melanesian languages, whereas 58.7% reported that they had no knowledge of any of them.