Kanaky: independence postponed
By Sam Wainwright
On December 8, residents of the French Overseas Territory of New Caledonia voted 71.86% in favour of a referendum proposal to shift more decision-making powers from Paris to the territory. The result paves the way for the creation of a new assembly and a further referendum on complete independence within 15 to 20 years.
Many media commentators are presenting the referendum result as a victory for pro-independence forces that will herald a new period of social peace.
Certainly, the pro-independence forces led by the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) called for a "yes" vote, and that vote was strongest among indigenous Kanaks, who comprise around 45% of the population. Whether the new structures will improve things for ordinary Kanaks, however, let alone lead to independence, is questionable.
The referendum proposal was a product of negotiations earlier this year between the FLNKS and the anti-independence Rally for Caledonia in the Republic (RPCR). The RPCR, along with the political establishment in Paris, also campaigned for a "yes" vote.
When the terms of the referendum were signed, Jacques Lafleur, president of the RPCR and owner of the territory's only daily newspaper, confidently declared, "New Caledonia will never be independent".
The only significant force to campaign for a "no" vote was the far-right racist National Front.
A history of struggle
Can the referendum result satisfy both the white establishment and the Kanak people, who are struggling against the legacy of 150 years of French colonisation and occupy the lowest positions in the economy?
This referendum was a product of the militant independence struggle of the Kanak people led by the FLNKS in the mid-1980s. Founded in 1984, the FLNKS is a coalition of pro-independence parties, the largest and most significant of which is the Caledonian Union (UC).
Through a combination of demonstrations, roadblocks and land seizures, French rule was thrown into crisis. The movement was met with heavy military and police repression.
Nonetheless, in 1988 the French government was forced to negotiate. These negotiations resulted in the Matignon Accords, the culmination of which was this month's referendum.
Since the beginning of the Kanak independence struggle, both Socialist Party and conservative governments in France have responded with repression, refusing to recognise the rights of a people deprived of their land through a brutal war of dispossession.
When the FLNKS conference endorsed the Matignon Accords in 1988, it reaffirmed its commitment to the struggle for independence.
Faced with violent repression, the FLNKS also had to make concessions in the Matignon Accords. In order to secure the freedom of political prisoners and reduced military and police deployments, the FLNKS accepted a referendum deferred until 1998.
Only those resident in the territory in 1988 had the right to vote in the referendum, but even with this provision, Kanaks were outnumbered by non-indigenous voters.
At the time of the negotiations, many felt that the FLNKS made too many concessions, but the minority of activists who saw the accords as a betrayal lacked an alternative strategy capable of inspiring new mobilisations.
The confusion and antagonism within the movement were greatly exacerbated by the assassination in May 1989 of Jean-Marie Tjibaou and Yeiwene Yeiwene, the FLNKS's president and vice-president. This left the FLNKS decapitated and introduced ill feeling into the movement, confounding calm debate as it entered an especially complex period.
These divisions and the lack of a clear strategy gave the French government the upper hand. It and the white elite have used the 10-year period of the Matignon Accords to consolidate their positions and shift the balance of power away from the independence forces.
Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the fact that this year the FLNKS felt it had to endorse a referendum which did not even put forward a transition to independence as its central proposal. Such a decision would have been impossible 10 years ago, when everybody understood that 1998 would be a vote on independence.
An important provision of the Matignon Accords was the establishment of three provincial government areas, Northern, Southern and Islands. Since then the RPCR has controlled Southern Province, the richest part of the territory where the capital Noumea is located, along with majority of the population. The FLNKS has been in control of Northern and Islands provinces.
The FLNKS entered these new government institutions and acquired political and economic responsibilities without an agreed strategy. The leaders and activists became increasingly disconnected from each other.
In the Islands and Northern provinces the FLNKS has virtually dissolved into government structures. In Southern Province, the RPCR has used government spending to group around it a certain base within the Kanak population.
Without a strategy for mobilising its base, the FLNKS leadership had little to bargain with.
Far from actively implementing a program to promote Kanak development as promised in 1988, the French government has taken advantage of the relative political stability to bolster France's political and economic influence in the Pacific.
A number of big French firms are now using the territory as a base for further expansion in the region. Speaking of prospects following the referendum, the president of New Caledonia's Chamber of Commerce and Industry said there were now 20 years of "considerable freedom, and financing [by Paris] for those freedoms".
The French state and the Caledonian business elite will undoubtedly seek to use the next "transition" period to further consolidate their position. In this context, greater "autonomy" is not necessarily a positive thing for the Kanak people.
But the attempts to destroy the independence movement by drawing some Kanaks into the colonial apparatus and repressing others cannot take the demand for independence off the agenda for the majority of Kanaks. For them, the issues of land rights, the survival of their culture and unemployment remain.