On August 6, a general strike in Kanaky (the French colony of New Caledonia) was called off after an accord between the Federation of Unions of Kanak Workers and the Exploited (USTKE) and Air Caledonia was finally signed by the airline.
The signing of the accord, negotiated on June 11, put an end to 10 days of demonstrations, roadblocks and violent confrontations with police. The protests were motivated by a desire for independence and decolonisation, as well as industrial justice.
The conflict was caused by the unfair dismissal of an Air Caledonia employee in March. The worker was sacked for "betraying commercial confidentiality" after telling her mother that her father had taken a flight with his mistress.
It grew on May 28 with the arrest of 28 people during a day of action called by USTKE to support the striking airline workers. Police attacked the protest, pushing demonstrators onto the tarmac.
Twenty-eight of them took refuge in an empty plane to protect themselves against a stream of tear gas. Despite no planes being in circulation at the time, the 28 were charged with "hindering the flight of an aircraft".
Tensions reached a new high on June 29 when the unionists were given prison sentences. USTKE said the repression targeted the leadership of the union. USTKE president Gerard Jodar, and general secretary of the construction union, Michel Safoka, are now both serving one year prison sentences.
With the airline dragging its feet on signing the accord, USTKE called for a general strike on July 27. Workers and residents responded with many actions, growing in intensity.
On August 5, in the working-class suburb of Montravel, 1500 youths threw stones at a truck convoy coming from Noumea's port with a police escort, forcing it to turn back. In the Saint Louis tribal area, a police officer was shot in the thigh during a confrontation between youth and the police.
The conflict has drawn on deep discontent at the social inequalities between indigenous Kanaks and neighbouring Islanders on the one hand, and French settlers and residents on the other.
The August 7 France 2 Telejournal said a quarter of the population is living below the poverty line — four times as many as on the French mainland. A young Kanak interviewed said those who come from Europe get a job in two-to-three months, whereas many locals, especially youth, are unemployed.
USTKE has formed the Workers' Party (PT) and criticised the co-option of the Socialist National Liberation Front, a leader of the pro-independence struggle in the '80s. The PT's radical pro-independence stance resonates with the dispossessed and explains the intensity of recent events.
Fearing a return to the insurrectional climate of the 1980's, the conservative president of the government of the French overseas territory, Philippe Gomes, intervened to persuade Air Caledonia to sign the accord. The accord inclded the reinstatement of the sacked worker, back pay for strikers and respect for traditional kanak authority.
The events in Kanaky mirror the general strikes earlier this year in the French colonies of Guadaloupe and Martinique — which won significant concessions.
USTKE general secretary Marie-Pierre Goyetche told the August 7 Liberation that the union would continue to mobilise until its leaders were released. The union promised "a second phase of mobilisation" with a day of action on August 22, three days before the appeal hearing of the six imprisoned union leaders.
[To sign the petition for the immediate release of the USTKE unionists, visit Links.org.au.]