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New Caledonia: Time to Talk about Decolonisation

Credit: Alain Pitton/NurPhoto via Getty Images

LONDON, Jun 20 2024 (IPS) - The violence that rocked New Caledonia last month has subsided. French President Emmanuel Macron has recently announced the suspension of changes to voting rights in the Pacific island nation, annexed by his country in 1853. His attempt to introduce these changes sparked weeks of violence.

Colonial legacies

Scattered around the world are 13 territories once part of the French Empire that haven’t achieved independence. Their status varies. Some, such as Guadeloupe and Martinique, have the same legal standing as French mainland regions. Others have more autonomy. New Caledonia is in a category of its own: since the 1998 Nouméa Accord, named after New Caledonia’s capital, France agreed to a gradual transfer of power. Currently, France determines New Caledonia’s defence, economic, electoral, foreign and migration policies.

The Accord came in response to a rising independence movement led by Kanak people, the country’s Indigenous inhabitants. Kanaks make up around 40 per cent of the population, with the rest being people of European descent and smaller groups of Asian, Oceanian and mixed heritage. Kanaks experienced severe discrimination under French colonial rule, and for a period were confined to reservations.

An independence movement formed after a fresh wave of Europeans arrived in the 1970s to work in the nickel-mining industry. New Caledonia is the world’s fourth-largest producer of nickel, a key ingredient in stainless steel and, increasingly, electric vehicle batteries. The nickel boom highlighted the divide in economic opportunities. Unrest lead to worsening violence and, eventually, the Nouméa Accord.

A downturn in the industry has deepened economic strife, exacerbating the poverty, inequality and unemployment many Kanaks experience. Today, around a third of Kanaks live in poverty compared to nine per cent of non-Kanaks.

Multiple referendums

The Accord created different electoral rolls for voting in mainland France and in New Caledonian elections and referendums, where the roll is frozen and only people who lived in the country in 1998 and their children can vote. These limitations were intended to give Kanak people a greater say in three independence referendums provided for in the Accord.

Referendums took place in 2018, 2020 and 2021, and the pro-independence camp lost every time. The 2020 vote was close, with around 47 per cent in favour of independence. But the December 2021 referendum was held amid a boycott by pro-independence parties, which called for a postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic: an outbreak that began in September 2021 left 280 people dead, most of them Kanak. Independence campaigners complained the vote impinged on traditional Kanak mourning rituals, making it impossible to campaign.

Almost 97 per cent of those who voted rejected independence, but the boycott meant only around 44 per cent of eligible people voted, compared to past turnouts of over 80 per cent.

France viewed this referendum as marking the completion of the Nouméa Accord. Macron made clear he considered the issue settled and appointed anti-independence people to key positions. The independence movement insisted that the vote, imposed by France against its wishes, wasn’t valid and another should be held.

Since the Accord was agreed, the far right has risen to prominence in France, as seen in the recent European Parliament elections. French politics and its politicians have become more racist, with mainstream parties, including Macron’s, tacking rightwards in response to the growing popularity of the far-right National Rally party. The ripple effect in New Caledonia is growing polarisation. As French politicians have promoted a narrow understanding of national identity, New Caledonia’s anti-independence movement has become more emboldened.

China’s push for closer ties with Pacific countries has also raised Oceania’s strategic importance. The US government and its allies, including France, have responded by paying renewed attention to a long-neglected region. France may be less willing to tolerate independence than before, particularly given the growing demand for electric vehicles.

State of emergency

The immediate cause of the protests was the French government’s plan to extend the franchise to anyone who has lived in New Caledonia for more than 10 years. For the independence movement, this was a unilateral departure from the Nouméa Accord’s principles and a setback for prospects for decolonisation and self-determination. Tens of thousands took part in protests against the change, approved by the French National Assembly but pending final confirmation.

On 13 May, clashes between pro-independence protesters and security forces led to riots. Rioters burned down hundreds of buildings in Nouméa. Communities set up barricades and people formed defence groups. Eight people are reported to have died.

France declared a state of emergency and brought in around 3,000 troops to suppress the violence, a move many in civil society criticised as heavy-handed. French authorities also banned TikTok. It was the first time a European Union country has made such a move, potentially setting a dangerous precedent.

Dialogue needed

Macron, who paid a brief visit once violence had subsided, has said the electoral changes will be suspended to allow for dialogue. His decision to gamble on early elections in France in the wake of his European election defeat has bought him some time.

This time should be used to build bridges and address the evident fact that many Kanak people don’t feel listened to. This goes beyond the question of the franchise. There are deep and unaddressed problems of economic and social exclusion. Many of those involved in violence were young, unemployed Kanaks who feel life has little to offer.

As a consequence of recent developments, New Caledonia is now more divided than it’s been in decades. The question of independence hasn’t been settled. Many Kanak people feel betrayed. For them, before there can be any extension of the franchise, France must agree to complete the unfinished process of decolonisation.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.


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