Kanaky: Jailed pro-independence unionists speaks out

Issue 

This abridged interview with Gerard Jodar, president of the pro-independence trade union federation Union of Kanak and Exploited Workers (USTKE), was first published in Liberation on August 17. He was interviewed by Matthieu Ecoiffier on the struggle of Kanaky, a French colony in the Pacific, for independence and social justice.

Translated into English by Annolies Truman, the full interview can be found at Links, international journal of socialist renewal, www.links.org.au

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Sentenced in June to a year in prison for "hindering the circulation of an aircraft", Gerard Jodar is one of very few trade unionists to be imprisoned in France — and his lawyers' application for a lesser sentence has just been rejected by the appeals judge of the Noumea Supreme Court.

Gerard Jodar explains the conditions of his detention as well as the situation in Kanaky (whose colonial name is New Caledonia).

How are you?

I'm fine because I'm being supported by a lot of militants. I'm in Kanaky's only prison. What I've witnessed is terrible.

Some 97% of the prisoners are young Kanaks [indigenous people]. The prison, intended for 190 detainees, has 417. There are five or six of us in filthy 11 square metre cells.
We're allowed a half-hour walk in a small yard in the morning and afternoon. There's no education program in the prison to facilitate the young prisoners' reintegration into society.

The food falls far short of meeting our needs and normal standards. A parliamentary delegation needs to come and write a report. For the prison staff, things aren't any better: understaffed, poor working conditions.

We're still in a colony and not very far from the convict era.

What are you accused of?

We're victims of the brutality of the state through the actions of the police and public prosecutor. Since early 2008, we've been attacked twice by several hundred police and mobile guards, although our mobilisations, within the framework of legal general strikes, were peaceful.

In the last conflict, that of Aircal [Air Caledonia, a local airline], a violent assault by police forced 28 of us to find refuge inside two planes to protect ourselves and wait for the end of the confrontation.

We all went to court, and for exactly the same actions, our sentences range from a fine, through to suspended sentences, to 12 months in prison for the head of our construction union and myself.

These decisions are totally discriminatory, if not surreal. We were given no hearing, despite the request of our lawyers.

Most of the bosses don't like the USTKE because our union doesn't hesitate to mobilise its members or denounce the aberrant distribution of wealth. A quarter of the population lives below the poverty line while another part lives in opulence and luxury.

Are you becoming a symbol of resistance to the Caledonian authorities and bosses?

To be a symbol isn't one of my ambitions. I want to remain a militant who fights for greater social justice, for a fair and effective sharing of wealth, for a redistribution in favour of the Kanak people and for the construction of a multicultural country within the framework of a community with a future.

The high commissioner [colonial governor] of the [French] Republic, Yves Dassonville, said: "Aircal was a pretext. What USTKE was really trying to do was create tension". What do you think of this statement?

Since I've been in prison, I've heard a lot of rubbish about this conflict. If, as we had hoped, the negotiations had started at the beginning of the strike, and not several months later, the conflict would have been resolved straight away.

But we mustn't overlook the fact that we are a pro-independence union and that the state, the bosses and the local right wing dream of only one thing: to see the USTKE disappear.

In 30 years, I've never seen a high commissioner give such brutal instructions or speak in such an extreme way, on the pretext of maintaining law and order. It would be preferable for him to be transferred elsewhere and for someone more diplomatic to take his place.

As the conflict worsened, contingents of young people were seen alongside the USTKE. How do you explain this common front?

First of all, I'd like to denounce the high commissioner's statement that the USTKE enrolled and armed the youth to use them against the state to destabilise the country. Another declaration that illustrates his lack of awareness of reality.

I'd also like to say that I condemn the vandalising and looting of businesses and public facilities.

I've had the opportunity to mix a lot with young people: they don't believe in contemporary politics anymore. They no longer have confidence in [political] institutions and they have no job prospects.

When one no longer has hope in the future, one reacts by reflex! When they see unionists getting bashed by police, when they hear extreme language used against [the unionists], what do young people think? Let's fight next to them, maybe it will bring about a behavioural change in our favour.

What do you expect from the French government and Marie-Luce Penchard, the secretary of state for overseas territories?

The French government needs to fully respect the provisions of the Noumea Accord of 1998. These agreements have to lead to real decolonisation, and it's therefore fundamental that sincerity prevails in this process.

If the Kanak people and the country's citizens feel betrayed, their reactions will be strong.

Marie-Luce Penchard came to visit for the first time and she hasn't got a good grasp of how things are. She stayed at the side of her local right-wing colleagues.

The local chamber of commerce and industry has accused your organisation of taking the New Caledonian economy hostage.

The chamber of commerce has only one focus: to increase profits for a minority under the guise of economic development. Many employers earn a lot of money here, but invest it elsewhere.

The chamber of commerce is fundamentally anti-independence and never stops telling us that here, we're in France. So why is the minimum wage lower here, why are social benefits worse?

When we ask certain employers this, they answer: "Consider yourselves lucky that we're giving you work!"

What are the links between the USTKE, the CGT [General Confederation of Labour, the second-largest union federation in metropolitan France] and Olivier Besancenot's New Anti-capitalist party (NPA)?

Strong, fraternal links designed to reinforce our determination to change things. During the last electoral campaign, we chose the slogan "Another world is on the move" because we are people of the land and what we see day after day is nauseating.

Wealth is concentrated in the hands of a minority while the majority gets poorer. Most political speeches are deliberately misleading, and in a small country like ours, they are remote-controlled by the employers.

What has changed since the Matignon Accords of 1988?

The USTKE was the only trade union organisation to have signed the accords in the person of its founding president, Louis Kotra Uregei. At first these accords were a "cease-fire", which put an end to the events of 1984-88.

For us these accords, followed by those of Noumea, have to lead to sovereignty, to giving us complete authority to manage our country.

The accords, therefore, have to commit to this direction so that we can build together a multinational country. But with a very important condition — re-establishing the indigenous Kanak people at the centre of this new country.

Unfortunately, many people would still have you believe that independence means poverty, anarchy and the exclusion of those who want only one thing — absolutely nothing to change.

It's worth mentioning that these moralists don't stop talking about democracy and freedom in a country where there is only one television channel, belonging to the state, one daily newspaper and five radio stations.

In these conditions, how can you imagine any real freedom of speech?

The right-wing political authorities use this to broadcast the message: "Luckily we are French, otherwise…"

I've asked for public debates about our approach towards independence with right-wing parliamentarians on television and radio. For the moment, the response is that no one wants to lower themselves to dialogue with us on this topic.

Are the recent troubles due to the big wave of immigration from metropolitan France that New-Caledonia has experienced in the last 10 years?

Since civil peace has returned to the country, we've witnessed a growing wave of immigration from France. The Kanak people and those who have been recognised as victims of history are going to become a minority if nothing is done.

We've asked for a law to protect these people's access to jobs. A bill was prepared, but it doesn't respond strongly enough to our aspirations.

When you know about the economic crisis in France and the ease with which those who land here have in finding work to the detriment of the country's citizens, you can only be shocked.

You know, in the tribes or the poor suburbs and squats, Noumea, the capital, is called "White City" because there are only Europeans there.

How do you see the situation in the country?

If all the desirable skills are transferred before the 2014 referendum, if the fear-mongering stops, if the will to construct a prosperous country within the framework of a real community with a future, through the redistribution of wealth, is effectively put in place, there is every hope of success.

In the opposite case, if there's no emancipation through the reparation of damages due to colonisation, then hope will be in vain.

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