Unrest in New Caledonia: ‘The Kanak people’s destiny should not be decided in Europe’

New Caledonia unrest

Violence erupted in New Caledonia in response to the constitutional bill amendment proposed in France's National Assembly. Screenshot from YouTube video of Al Jazeera English, fair use.

Protests turned into riots in New Caledonia as pro-independence youth activists clashed with the police in response to a proposed constitutional reform in the French National Assembly which would allow residents who have lived there for 10 years to vote in local elections. Activists say the move further dilutes Indigenous peoples’ power on the island and will ensure New Caledonia remains an “overseas territory” of France.

New Caledonia is a South Pacific territory that was colonized by France in 1853. Despite longstanding independence demands by local Indigenous groups, it remains a French territory. It has been on the United Nations’ list for decolonization since 1986. The landmark Noumea Peace Accord in 1998 instituted a three-part independence referendum to determine the political future of New Caledonia.

The first referendum took place in November 2018 while the second vote was held in October 2020. Both results delivered only a small margin in favor of France which reflected a solid constituency pushing for the self-determination of the Indigenous Kanak population. The third referendum in December 2021 was controversial because the Paris government decided to continue with it despite appeals from the Kanak community to postpone the voting during the pandemic. As expected, it delivered an overwhelming victory for France because pro-independence groups boycotted the referendum. The voter turnout was also less than 50 percent.

Instead of addressing the concern of Pacific groups about the credibility of the third referendum, France pushed forward with a constitutional bill that would “unfreeze” New Caledonia’s electoral roll. This means residents who arrived or settled in the territory over the past decade will be eligible to vote. This would further dilute the voting representation of the Kanak people who make up 42 percent of the 270,000 population.

Violence erupted in New Caledonia while France’s National Assembly was deliberating the amendment bill on May 13. Almost 5,000 people were involved in the riots that also led to looting and burning of properties. A state of emergency was declared in the territory and France deployed troops to restore order. Some apps like TikTok were banned which raised concern about the suppression of free speech. As violence continued for several days, Pacific groups called for peace as they expressed solidarity with the Kanak community.

Charlot Salwai Tabimasmas, chairman of the Melanesian Spearhead Group and Prime Minister of Vanuatu, attributed the crisis to the indifference of French leaders.

These events could have been avoided if the French Government had listened and not proceeded to bulldoze the Constitutional Bill aimed at unfreezing the electoral roll, modifying the citizen’s electorate, and changing the distribution of seats in Congress.

But he also warned that “the indiscriminate destruction of property will affect New Caledonia’s economy in a very big way and that will have a debilitating cascading effect on the welfare and lives of all New Caledonians, including the Kanaks.”

He is proposing the establishment of a “dialogue and mediation mission to be led by a mutually agreed high-personality” to resolve the crisis. This is also the recommendation of the Pacific Islands Forum which stated that it “stands ready to facilitate and provide a supported and neutral space for all parties to come together in the spirit of the Pacific Way.”

Reverend James Shri Bhagwan, General Secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches, reminded French leaders about the supposed “impartial role” of the French state in the decolonization process. He also underscored the historic roots of the crisis.

It cannot be ignored that eruption of violence is the manifestation of the pain, trauma and frustration of a community who have consistently had their indigenous and political rights undermined, by a French government whose rhetoric of being a “Pacific nation” is exposed by its actions.

Pastor Var Kaemo, president of the Protestant Church in Kanaky New Caledonia, lamented the violent turn of events. “We must not be accomplices to these volcanic eruptions that spread disaster and misery in the land of our ancestors. The island closest to paradise has become the island closest to hell.”

New Caledonia is the world's third-largest producer of nickel — a crucial component in the EV energy transition — and jobs in the nickel-mining industry make up 25 percent of employment opportunities. The price of nickel has spiked since the unrest began last week.

Nicole George, associate professor in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Queensland, interviewed women leaders who pointed out the active role of frustrated young people who were protesting wealth disparities and lack of meaningful opportunities in the territory. “These fuel resentment and the profound racial inequalities that deprive Kanak youths of opportunity and contribute to their alienation,” she wrote.

This is the same analysis made by Victor Gogny, president of the Sénat coutumier, the Kanak Customary Senate, an advisory body to Congress and government made up of 16 Indigenous chiefs.

The statement issued by the Pacific Regional Non-Governmental Organisations on April 30, two weeks before the debate in the French assembly which triggered the unrest, reflected the sentiments of the Indigenous Kanak community.

The evil of colonialism can continue unchecked in this manner, and in this 21st Century is not only an insult to the Pacific Region but to the international system.

The Pacific is not distracted by French false narratives. The Kanak, as people, are the rightful inhabitants of what is present day New Caledonia still under enduring French colonial rule.

The Kanak people and New Caledonias destiny should not be decided in Europe, they are Pacific people who are rightfully asking for their freedom.

As of Tuesday, May 21, French President Emmanuel Macron plans to make a surprise visit to the island state to attempt to quell the protest.

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