New Caledonia cries, ‘Everything is negotiable, except independence’

Kanaky solidarity

Solidarity action in Vanuatu for Kanaky Indigenous people in New Caledonia. Screenshot from video post. Source: Facebook page of Vanuatu Solidarity for Kanaky. Fair use

The situation has remained tense in French overseas territory New Caledonia a month after protests and riots erupted in response to the passage of a bill in France’s National Assembly that would have diluted the voting power of the Indigenous Kanak population.

Nine people have already died, with 212 police and gendarmes wounded, more than 1,000 people arrested or charged, and 2,700 tourists and visitors have been repatriated. Riots led to looting and burning of shops which has caused an estimated USD 200 million in economic damage so far. An estimated 7,000 jobs were lost.

French President Emmanuel Macron arrived on May 23 to defuse tension in the Pacific territory but his visit failed to quell the unrest as he merely suspended the enforcement of the bill instead of addressing the demand for a dialogue on how to proceed with the decolonization process. He also deployed an additional 3,000 troops to restore peace and order which only further enraged the local population.

Pacific groups condemned France's decision to send in additional troops in New Caledonia:

These measures can only perpetuate the cycle of repression that continues to impede the territory’s decolonisation process and are to be condemned in the strongest terms!

The pace and pathway for an amicable resolution of Kanaky-New Caledonia’s decolonisation challenges cannot, and must not continue to be dictated in Paris.

They also called out French officials and loyalists for pinning the blame for the riots solely on pro-independence forces.

Whilst local customary, political, and church leaders have deplored all violence and taken responsibility in addressing growing youth frustrations at the lack of progress on the political front, loyalist voices and French government representatives have continued to fuel narratives that serve to blame independence supporters for hostilities.

Joey Tau of the Pacific Network on Globalisation recalled that the heavy-handed approach of France also led to violent clashes in the 1980s that resulted in the drafting of a peace accord.

The ongoing military buildup needs to be also carefully looked at as it continues to instigate tension on the ground, limiting people, limiting the indigenous peoples movements. And it just brings you back to, you know, the similar riots that had in before New Caledonia came to an accord, as per the Noumea Accord. It's history replaying itself.

The situation in New Caledonia was tackled at the C-24 Special Committee on Decolonization of the United Nations on June 10. Reverand James Shri Bhagwan, general secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches, spoke at the assembly and accused France of disregarding the demands of the Indigenous population.

France has turned a deaf ear to untiring and peaceful calls of the indigenous people of Kanaky-New Caledonia and other pro-independence supporters for a new political process, founded on justice, peaceful dialogue and consensus and has demonstrated a continued inability and unwillingness to remain a neutral and trustworthy party under the Noumea Accord.

Philippe Dunoyer, one of the two New Caledonians who hold seats in the French National Assembly, is worried that the dissolution of the parliament, the snap election recently announced by Macron, and the Paris hosting of the Olympics would further drown out news coverage about the situation in the Pacific territory.

This period will probably not allow the adoption of measures which are very urgent, very important, particularly in terms of economic recovery, support for economic actors, support for our social protection system and for financing of New Caledonia.

Trade union leader Mélanie Atapo summed up the sentiments of pro-independence protesters who told French authorities that “you can’t negotiate with a gun to your head” and that “everything is negotiable, except independence.” She added:

In any negotiations, it is out of the question to once again endorse a remake of the retrograde agreements that have only perpetuated the colonial system. Today, we can measure the disastrous results of these, through the revolt of Kanak youth.

Meanwhile, the Pacific Islands Forum reiterated its proposal to provide a “neutral space for all parties to come together in the spirit of the Pacific Way, to find an agreed way forward.”

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