Kanak protesters are right to resist French imperialism

May 24, 2024
Kanaks protesting in Paris
Kanaks demonstrating in Paris, on May 1. Photo: Colin Falconer

On May 15th, the French government declared a state of emergency in the country’s semi-autonomous overseas territory of New Caledonia, which lies 1400 kilometers east of Australia (17,000 kilometers from Paris). Earlier, the French High Commissioner had described the situation there as “ insurrectional ”, while a former minister and local member of parliament spoke of “ civil war ” inspired by “ anti-white racism ”.

There have been several nights of large-scale rioting, mainly in Greater Noumea, which is home to two-thirds of the territory’s 270,000 population. Dozens of shops and other properties have been fire-bombed, while the streets are littered with burnt-out vehicles. A government spokesman admitted that certain areas were "out of control".

Security forces using bulldozers and armoured vehicles are gradually destroying barricades but many are rebuilt as soon as they leave.

At the time of writing, 600 police, gendarmes and members of elite special forces are attempting to open up the strategic road leading to the airport where up to 80 barricades have been erected. All commercial flights are cancelled until further notice, though Australia and New Zealand have sent military planes to evacuate their citizens.

Residents in the mainly European districts have organised armed vigilante (or “self-defence”) groups.  Many of the indigenous Kanak rioters are also armed. There have been six deaths so far including a gendarme killed by "friendly" fire.

Predictably, [French President Emmanuel] Macron claimed that the revolt had been fomented by “foreign interference” — by Azerbaijan of all places! Interior minister Gérald Darmanin singled out the CCAT — a recently-formed coalition of parties, trade unions, and associations — accusing it of being a “mafia ”.

Yet, the most obvious cause of the revolt was two decisions taken recently by Macron himself, as we shall see later.

So what is the background to this crisis, the latest in France’s troubled — and troublesome — overseas territories stretching from the Caribbean to the Pacific via the Indian Ocean?

For decades after being claimed for France in 1853, New Caledonia was the country’s largest penal colony. Up to 22,000 prisoners were sent there  — not only common law criminals but also political deportees, including Algerian rebels and survivors of the 1871 Paris Commune (most famously, Louise Michel, who became a champion of the indigenous Melanesians).

But France’s aim was to establish a settler colony in the south-western Pacific in addition to its Polynesian possessions further east. New Caledonia was exploited for its natural resources, but France’s interest also had to do with military and geopolitics. The tiny island territory is the world’s third largest producer of nickel, after Indonesia and the Philippines. And a strong French foothold in the region is seen as a useful counterweight to the growing influence of China.

As in Algeria, Africa, and Indo-China, indigenous peoples were subject to France’s draconian colonial regime and their lands were confiscated. They were mainly confined to villages run by ‘tribal’ chiefs according to customary law. Kanaks were denied citizenship until as late as 1953.

Economic development, especially the postwar nickel boom that attracted immigrants from Japan, Vietnam, Java, and Polynesia as well as France, combined with the attractive conditions offered to expatriates, has resulted in growing inequality, a concentration of wealth in the southern province (which includes Noumea) and a significant shift in the demographic balance. The Kanak share of the population has now fallen to 41%.

Kanak society has not stood still, however. Increasingly politically conscious and educated young Kanaks and women, in particular, are proud of their culture and committed to independence. Many Kanaks work in the nickel mines. There is a powerful trade union, the UTSKE, with an associated Labour Party.

Regional governments in Kanak-dominated areas in the north and the outlying islands have benefited from devolved powers, including a share in nickel mining.

Today, half of Kanaks live in the Greater Noumea area, many in suburbs where poverty and unemployment are rife. The city itself is known as “Nouméa la Blanche” because of its mainly white population.

Crucially, the vast majority of Kanaks support the independence movement and they have recently been joined by many Pacific island migrants. White New Caledonian loyalists have traditionally voted for right-wing conservative parties, while Marine Le Pen received 50% in the second round of the 2022 presidential election in Noumea.

Against this background, the present crisis was sparked by a hardline shift in government policy. After the bloody four-year conflict which rocked Kanaky-New Caledonia in the 1980s, leaving nearly a hundred dead, a carefully negotiated agreement was reached between the pro-independence parties and the socialist government.

Outnumbered and up against the full might of the French state, Kanak leaders opted for a strategy of progressive change leading either to full independence (which remains their goal) or at least a form of "independence-in-association-with-France".

The much-hailed agreement was followed by a 30-year period of relative stability. Jobs have been created and Kanaks promoted, infrastructures built, and Kanak history and culture recognised. Pro-independence parties now run two of the three regions — the poorest and least populated — and control part of the nickel industry in partnership with private capital.

According to the agreement, three referendums on independence were to take place after a 30-year transitional period. Crucially, newly-arrived immigrants and expats were not to be allowed to vote in elections to the provincial parliament, thus "freezing" the demographic balance (in which, let us remember, the Kanaks were still outnumbered).

In the second referendum, in 2020, support for independence grew from 44% to 47%. Yet, at the same time, "loyalist" opinion was hardening.

It was at this point that Macron showed his hand. First, he decided to go ahead quickly with the third and "final" referendum in the hope of closing off the debate. The vote was boycotted by the Kanaks, whose communities were still in mourning for the victims of the Covid pandemic. The boycott was extremely effective, and resulted in a 96% majority against independence (since mostly white French voted). Kanak leaders claimed  the result was illegitimate, while Macron presented it as a definitive vote in favour of "Kanaky in France".

Ignoring warnings of a likely confrontation, Macron and Darmanin then went ahead with a constitutional law designed to allow those who had settled in the territory since 1998 to vote in elections to the provincial parliament (after ten years’ residence), which currently has a pro-independence majority.

In the weeks leading up to a decision in the French parliament, there were massive and peaceful protest marches in Kanaky, while representatives lobbied MPs in France. They were supported by most of the French left and several elected leaders of overseas departments and territories from Guadeloupe in the Caribbean to French Polynesia. There was also an impressive Kanak block on the traditional May Day march in Paris.

On May 14th, Macron’s MPs, supported by the conservative right and Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN), voted for the change in the electoral rules, with the left-wing NUPES opposition group (Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise, communists, ecologists, and socialists) voting against. The result was unfortunately a foregone conclusion.

Meanwhile, 17, 000 kilometers from France’s parliament, authorities in New Caledonia imposed a curfew and made hundreds of arrests, while the FLNKS (Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front) called on militants to lift road blocks to allow essential supplies to be delivered. The anger on the streets is such that this may have little effect.

Macron still has some room for manœuvre, as the law has yet to be ratified. It is unclear how flexible he is prepared to be. Underlying  his move is a strategy designed to please the conservative and far-right electorate in France where his party is trailing far behind Le Pen’s Rassemblement National in the European election campaign. It is also, perhaps, a message to other powers and potential challengers that French imperialism does not intend to scale down its role in the region as has recently happened in several former African colonies.

It is a strategy that may still backfire.

UPDATE WEDNESDAY MAY 22ND: In an unprecedented move, president Macron, accompanied by three government ministers, has flown out to New Caledonia in person. For the moment it is unclear how he hopes to resolve the crisis.

[Colin Falconer is a British socialist living in France and a member of ENSEMBLE! Mouvement pour une Alternative de Gauche Écologiste et Solidaire. Reposted from theleftberlin.com, where the article originally appeared.]

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