Kanaky: ‘Self-determination is central’

May 31, 2024
protesters with Kanak flags
Protesting for Kanak independence in the French capital Paris on May 25. Photo: @sol_kanaky/X

Peaceful protest turned to unrest in Kanaky (New Caledonia) following the unilateral move in the French National Assembly under President Emmanuel Macron to change voting rights to enfranchise about 25,000 recent French settlers in Kanaky. The move was widely condemned as undermining the indigenous Kanak people’s struggle for self-determination and independence.

While the legislation passed through the French Assembly and Senate, it now needs a joint sitting of both houses to be officially ratified.

A brutal security crackdown, which began with a curfew, has escalated to a state of emergency, which could continue for months.

Chloe DS, Jacob Andrewartha and Rob Zocchi from 3CR’s Green Left Radio show spoke with journalist Nic Maclellan on May 24 about the crisis in Kanaky, geopolitical factors in the Indo Pacific and the centrality of Kanak self-determination.

Maclellan said that for decades, coalitions, particularly the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) “have been calling for a pathway to an independent and sovereign state.

“Over many decades there have been campaigns for self-determination for independence. France has tried to hold back the tide, but the current crisis shows that the Kanak people will not be let out.”

In response to the crisis, Macron flew to Kanaky with French Minister of the Interior Gerald Darmanin. They left after just 18 hours on the ground, with Macron announcing that the legislation would be “put on hold”. However, this has not quelled the unrest and the FLNKS is calling on France to commit to serious high level dialogue with pro-independence forces and involving other Pacific nations.

Maclellan said information has been difficult to obtain because of the state of emergency.

“It's only the second time in New Caledonia's history that this has been done.

“And that gives extensive powers to the French authorities ... they can ban gatherings, demonstrations, activities on public spaces. They have the right to put people under house arrest now. They have moved to ban Tik Tok, arguing that it was used by young people during the clashes that we saw particularly last week every night despite the curfew on the streets.”

Maclellan said France has deployed nearly 3000 security personnel, “including the infamous CRS riot squads that are heavily weaponised for urban conflict”, as well as “the elite counter terrorist and protective service unit called RAID”.

Macron announced on May 23, as he left Kanaky, that “these police forces would stay to maintain calm to maintain ‘Republican order’ for as long as needed … even up to the Olympics,” said Maclellan.

So Macron is talking about maintaining the state of emergency in the short term, but police deployment for "as long as it takes".

Maclellan said that the "Republican order" Macron talks about is keeping Kanaky within the French Republic.

“But there is strong resistance. The current president of New Caledonia, for the first time in 40 years, is a pro-independence Kanak politician. Just last year, the same thing happened in French Polynesia, [where] the current government and presidency is held by the Tavini Huiratira, an independence party.”

Maclellan said that part of the policy shift by France from pro-independence to maintaining colonialism and a presence in the Indo-Pacific can be explained by economics.

“New Caledonia has crucial reserves of strategic metals like nickel, which is vital for everything from armaments to electric car batteries. There's been a long struggle over trying to control the mining and export of ore, and the smelting of ore. And there's been a real economic crisis, particularly since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, around energy prices, around industrial disputes and so on.

“France does want to control the enormous maritime resources of the Pacific. [In Europe] France is surrounded by The Netherlands, Belgium, England [and] Spain. It has a very small exclusive economic zone.

“But in the Pacific, there are 7 million square kilometers of exclusive economic zone, claimed by French sovereignty. And that's got all sorts of implications in the 21st century around maritime resources, fisheries, seabed minerals, deep sea oil and gas.”

Pacific Island leaders have been very critical of France in regard to its policy towards Kanaky, Maclellan said.

“For a long time, there's been a call for the move to change political status towards political independence, towards sovereignty. The Noumea Accord, first signed 25 years ago in 1998, created a pathway towards that, culminating in a series of three referendums between 2018 and 2021.

“The last one was rammed through in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, by the French government, against the wishes of not just Kanak leaders, but many others.

“At that time, Pacific Island leaders — there was a monitoring mission from the Pacific Islands Forum, the main regional organisation — said that vote had no credibility or legitimacy, because of the way it was conducted by the French government.”

The FLNKS is also a member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), which links together the independent states of Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, The Solomon Islands and Fiji.

“The MSG particularly has been very vocal this week calling on the French government to withdraw its electoral reform legislation, calling for an end to conflict because of the incredible damage in Noumea to businesses and jobs,” said Maclellan.

“But more importantly, [the MSG is] calling for France to extend the dialogue towards a pathway forward to independence.

“This will come up at the Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting which will be held in the last week of August in Tonga.”

Regarding Australia’s response to the crisis, Maclellan explained that this is intertwined with Australia’s strategic partnership with France as well as its alliance with the United States and AUKUS.

“Under successive governments Australia has had a strategic partnership with France — one that was certainly disrupted by the AUKUS decision to dump a submarine contract with France and buy American instead.

“But Deputy Prime Minister Richard Miles has been actively engaged in strengthening military cooperation with the French. And that's caused a lot of anger in the Pacific amongst churches, among citizens groups, who want to support their brothers and sisters in Kanaky New Caledonia.”

“There is significant strategic competition between the United States and China in the region dubbed the Indo Pacific and including the Pacific islands. Australia has lined up with the United States through AUKUS, the Quad, the Blue Dot Network — a whole latticework of networks designed to constrain Chinese influence in this region.

“France has positioned itself as a Pacific power, because of its colonial control over New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna. When President Macron visited Noumea in July last year he talked about how the reserves of nickel in New Caledonia were an asset not just for New Caledonians, but for Europe and France.

“France has some contradictions with the United States, shown by the battle over whether Australia would buy French or buy American for its defence equipment ... But there's been strong coalition building across the region and I think this week has shown that France is actually causing instability, for regional security.

“I suspect that in Washington, in Wellington, in Canberra, there'll be a lot of discussion about whether backing France in its colonial policy actually helps or hinders the broader strategic aim of constraining Chinese influence.

“Certainly across the Pacific, community groups, trade unions, churches are speaking out about French colonialism in ways that hasn't really happened in recent years.

In terms of the connections between the struggle of indigenous Kanaks and First Nations peoples in Australia and elsewhere in the region, Maclellan said “a central issue is the right to self-determination”.

“Colonialism by its very nature is anti-democratic, and all around the Pacific there are struggles by indigenous peoples and supporters in these countries ... calling for a change of political status.

“You see it in West Papua as people mobilise against Indonesian administration. Bougainville is currently heading towards a crisis because Papua New Guinea has been ... dragging its feet to implement pledges that they've made following the 2019 referendum, where Bougainvilleans by 97% voted for independence.

“French Polynesia's President Moetai Brotherson will be visiting Australia in September. [He's a] longstanding independence campaigner. Things are on the move in these issues as Pacific peoples want everyone to focus on their agendas [around] development, oceans management and climate.

“Those are the security issues that challenge people in the Pacific, and the geopolitical agendas driven by the major powers don't mesh with their priorities and aspirations for the future.”

[Listen to a podcast of the full interview with Green Left Radio on Melbourne's community radio station 3CR.]

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