After the November 4 referendum: For a free New Caledonia

Workers’ protest, Noumea, January 2016

by Phil Duncan

Sunday, November 4 saw the long-awaited referendum in New Caledonia on whether to become independent or stay part of France.  Given the population make-up, as the French government has historically ensured a sizeable pro-French settler population, the rejection of independence was hardly surprising.  The vote was 56.4% for staying with France and 43.6% for independence.  French president Macron declared this outcome to be a show of “confidence in the French Republic”.  However, the voting figures suggest that the majority of Kanaks, the Melanesian indigenous population, continue to favour independence.

France maintains artificial majority

For instance, the territory is divided into three provinces and in the two with predominantly Kanak populations, people voted decisively for independence.  In North Province, where Kanaks make up about 75% of the population, the vote was 75.8% for independence and just 24.2% to stay with France.  In the Loyalty Islands Province, where 96-97% of the population is Kanak, the vote for independence was just over 82% for independence and just under 18% for the status quo.  It was only in South Province that the pro-French option won decisively 73.7% to 26.3%.  But this province is by far the most populous and also the one in which the French population of New Caledonia is concentrated, along with migrant workers (mainly from elsewhere in the Pacific, especially the French possession of Wallis and Futuna) and a Kanak minority.

Across the whole of New Caledonia, the Kanak population is just under 40% of the population, over 27% are European (mainly French), almost 9% (predominantly European) identify as Caledonian and most of the rest of the population comes from Wallis and Futuna and other parts of the Pacific from Indonesia to Tahiti or identify as multi-ethnic.  The French state has long been able to rely on its settler population to act as an anti-independence bloc and then gain support from a minority of Kanaks who benefit economically and politically from French rule and a layer of migrants who the French have been able to separate from their Kanak fellow Pacific Islanders.

When, in the 1960s the Kanaks became a majority again the French simply encouraged settlers from France and elsewhere in the Pacific.

Colonial takeover

The French took over what is now New Caledonia in 1853 and the following year began using it as a penal colony.  Among those sent there were participants in an 1870-71 rebellion against French rule in Algeria and revolutionaries from the Paris Commune of 1871.

The Kanaks resisted the French takeover but were defeated.

An 1878 rebellion by Kanaks was brutally crushed.  Kanaks were largely confined to reservations and marginalised economically, socially, politically and culturally.  In 1917 a chief called Noel led a new revolt, after refusing to support France in the First World War.  That rebellion was also brutally repressed and Noel was decapitated, his head then being displayed in a Paris museum.

The apartheid-like system continued while mining and the economy generally expanded, especially with nickel production.  Indeed, GDP per capita today is pretty high – over $NZ50,000 – but this is very unevenly shared, at the expense of the bulk of the Kanak population and migrant workers.  Also, France keeps its public employees in New Caledonia loyal by paying them twice the rate it pays in France itself.

New era of resistance

A new movement emerged in the 1970s and 1980s.  For instance, students who were in France during the 1968 worker-student upsurge returned to New Caledonia and established PALIKA (Party of Kanak Liberation) in the early 1970s.

These young people were not prepared to put up with the humiliations visited upon their parents and grandparents.  Just one example of the contemptuous attitude towards Kanaks by well-off French settlers was that they released sewage into water on Kanak land, so Kanaks had to drink polluted water.  Demands for clean drinking water were met with accusations of “Marxism”!

On September 24, 1974 a handful of young Kanak liberation activists protested a French military parade.  They were beaten up by French military and some ended up spending months in prison.

In 1984 a range of left forces came together to establish the Kanak Socialist and National Liberation Front.  When the French authorities called elections for November 18 for a new fake parliament, the Territorial Assembly, the FLNKS called for an electoral boycott.  The Assembly was rigged towards the French – not only the colonial settlers but even French tourists and military personnel could vote in the Assembly election.  Following two weeks of open rebellion and the successful election boycott – four out of five Kanaks did not vote and turnout was a bare 50% of the entire eligible electorate (including tourists and occupation forces) – the FLNKS declared the formation of an independent government on December 1 and renamed the country Kanaky.  They appointed Jean-Marie Tijibaou president.  Armed clashes began with right-wing settlers and state forces.  Several Kanak activists were assassinated.

In 1986, New Caledonia was added to the list of non-self-governing territories by the United Nations Committee on Self-Determination. The struggle for independence grew, with street protests, strikes and confrontations, including armed ones, with the French administration. These culminated in a stand-off between armed FLNKS activists and French repressive forces in late April/early May 1988.  Four gendarmes were killed and others taken hostage, along with a public prosecutor.  Nineteen independence activists were killed, many of them executed after surrendering.

Buying off the opposition

In June 1988 the Matignon Accords were signed; the French said they would improve the conditions of Kanaks and the independence movement agreed not to rock the boat for a decade.  The Noumea Accord of 1998 allowed partial sovereignty, but with the French government in Paris still in charge of the military, and also foreign policy, immigration, currency and police.  The Accord was supported in a referendum.  These Accords were essentially a recognition by the French that they could not rule in the old way but they could make deals with elements of the independence movement which represented the interests of an emergent middle class Kanak layer.  In fact, the French, as wily imperialists, were prepared to help in the formation of an indigenous elite who would be provided with some power and wealth and act as a buffer between imperialism and the oppressed and exploited mass of the population.

Those opposed to the deals included right-wing French settler elements who opposed even partial control being ceded by France and the left-wing Union Syndicale des Travailleurs Kanaks et des Exploités (Union of Kanak Workers and the Exploited), a progressive workers’ union founded in 1980. The USTKE stands for complete independence and identifies as anti-capitalist, favouring the establishment of a socialist republic.  It has argued that since Matignon there have been “30 years of agreements and always stronger inequalities”.  They stand against both French rule and the new Kanak elite.

Continuing inequality, continuing resistance

Meanwhile a handful of French settler families dominate the private sector, involving the import-export trade, household products, agribusiness, car dealerships, health, and other areas.  While channels of advancement have been opened up for a small number of Kanaks, most of the population remain badly off.

The standard of living in general appears to have risen since the early 1990s, but in the most areas where Kanaks are concentrated poverty remains high: 35% in the north and 52% in the Loyalty Islands, compared with 7% in Noumea, where Kanaks are a minority (2017 figures).  Similarly, in the French-dominated south unemployment is 11%, compared to 24% in the north and 34% in the Loyalty Islands (2014 figures).  Kanaks remain discriminated against in jobs and education.  And 90% of those incarcerated in youth detention are Kanak.

Class battles take place in New Caledonia around redundancies and austerity.  The working class makes up a large section of the population.  For instance, workers and other employees alone, not taking into account their families and the unemployed, make up about a third of the population.  The possibilities for resistance and struggle for a free New Caledonia, a workers’ republic, remain.