By Marc Lassalle
PARIS – ON 4 NOVEMBER, 174,154 voters, from a population of 268,000, in Kanaky voted on the question: “Do you want Nouvelle Calédonie (New Caledonia) to access full sovereignty and become independent?”
Kanaky, better known by the name New Caledonia given by James Cook to several islands (the largest is called Grande Terre) in the South Pacific, lies far off the eastern coast of Australia and 16,000 km away from France.
Occupied by France in 1853, it is still part of the French State, and listed since 1986 by UNO as a non-autonomous country to be decolonised. In 1863, and until 1931, it was a penitentiary colony, where Louise Michel and other communards were detained for years. The history of colonisation of these small islands is a tragic one: in 1878, 1917 and again in 1984-1988, Kanak independence insurrections were repressed in blood. As in many other places, the French occupation took on a genocidal character: from 1887 to 1901 the Kanak population dropped from 45,000 to 27,000.
The French strategy was always to oppress the Kanaks and to replace them with colonists, first the “bagnards”, that is the deportees, then Algerian political prisoners and later Harkis, the Algerians who sided with the French in the war. In 1972, the French PM, Pierre Messmer, wrote: “The French presence in Caledony can only be threatened by a nationalist demand from the indigenous population. The massive immigration of French citizens from the metropolis should avoid this danger by maintaining and improving the numerical ratio of the communities.” Even today, the French state promises doubled wages to attract some 6,700 public sector workers, mainly teachers, from the metropolis.
This century-long oppression meant that, in the 2018 referendum, the Kanak voters were a minority, representing only about 40 percent of the voters. Indeed, the question “Who has the right to vote?” was a crucial one. The main union on the island, USTKE, Union Syndicale des Travailleurs Kanak et des exploités, called for a “non-participation”, together with its closely linked Parti Travailliste, denouncing the referendum as rigged. On the contrary, the main independence party, FLNKS, Front de Libération Kanak et socialiste, called for a yes vote.
The referendum was a long time coming. It was first promised in the 1988 Matignon-Oudinot agreement, which came after the bloody interventions of the French police who in 1985 killed the independence leaders Eloi Machorro and Marcel Nonnaro, and in 1988 killed 19 activists in the attack of the Ouvea cave. That agreement, signed by the French state and FLNKS, appeared to represent a partial concession to the demands of Kanaks by setting a date for a referendum on independence, 1998.
However, in that year there was no referendum, instead the “Noumea Agreement” gave a degree of autonomy and an element of Kanak representation. They were given some 20 representatives in the local assemblies and they obtained some rights on the nickel exploitation. The nickel mines represent up to 30 percent of the world reserves and 10 percent of the world production of this metal, which is widely used in special steels and other alloys. After these agreements, FLNKS obtained control of an important part of the nickel industry, representing up to 10 percent of the island’s GDP.
However, these concessions have not changed much in the social situation of the local population. While the GDP per capita is 11 times higher than in the Vanuatu Islands, another French ex-colony in the South Pacific, inequalities are still very strong. The poverty rate is 2.5 higher than in France, and the discrimination against Kanaks is everywhere. Many live in shanty towns, and 99 percent of the local prison population comes from the Kanak youth.
The concentration of the market economy in the hands of a dozen wealthy families, the oligopolies controlling the import of goods, the links between politics and business, all this is the heavy legacy of the colonial past that keeps the Kanaks in the same chains as before. As a Kanak figure puts it: “Many things changed in the last 30 years, but the capitals remained on the same side”. Even a high French administrator agrees: “In reality, following the Noumea agreement, there has been a consolidation of the colonial situation to the advantage of non-kanak people.”
Against this background, it is easier to understand the game played by French imperialism. While formally organising a peaceful transition, it has made sure the real power remains in the hands of the colonists. Obliging the Kanaks to be a minority in their own land, it organised the failure of the demand for independence or, in the worst case, made sure to leave control of the country in the hands of the colonists.
However, the results of the November 4 vote partially contradicted these expectations. While the colonists were expecting a large victory, 70 or 80 percent, for No, thereby effectively ruling out self-determination for ever, in fact the No vote won by a meagre 56.7 against 43.3. Kanaks massively voted Yes and even in Nouméa, the rich and white capital, the vote for independence was as high as ever.
As the Noumea agreement allowed for two further referenda in 2020 and 2022, the chances are high that Kanaky might become independent rather soon. After 170 years of colonial domination, this will be a victory for the Kanak struggle for self-determination. Moreover, it might reinforce independence movements in the other French colonies like Polynésie, Guyane, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Ile de la Réunion. In many of these territories, social unrest and social movements have been very strong in recent years, especially against the cost of living and unemployment.
However, as partially recognised in the USTKE demands, independence will not break the chains of domination unless it is combined with a social revolution, so that Kanaks and the rest of the exploited population, of which 30 percent come from Wallis and Futuna and Asian countries, also take control of the real economic power. Indeed, the best strategy to obtain independence is to combine democratic demands with social demands on jobs, houses, control of the land, the import/export trade and local production, to create with other social groups and communities a wide front supporting it.
It is the duty of French revolutionaries to denounce the imperialists’ crimes and to help in all possible ways their brother and sisters in the colonies to free themselves.
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