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  • Maya Sgaravato-Grant

How five weeks of turmoil on a Pacific archipelago has exposed France’s enduring colonialism

By Maya Sgaravato-Grant

Measuring 7.4 metres long by 3.3 high, equipped with smoke grenade launchers and machine gun capacity, the monstrous armoured car dubbed the ‘Centaur’ cuts an imposing figure on the landscape of Kanaky-New Caledonia. 

This small pacific island country of 270,000 inhabitants has witnessed the arrival of at least 3000 French troops and 1000 additional gendarmes (military police) since the 14th May, when riots began in response to a controversial new bill which would put dreams of independence far from reach. 171 years on from the archipelago’s incorporation into the French Empire, this territory of ‘Overseas France’, one of the remaining 17 territories recognised as ‘non-self-governing’ by the UN, has never ceased to be a colony. The disregard and contempt shown to the indigenous community indicates that the French government is keen for it to remain that way.

In 1988, years of bloody conflict between the indigenous and European communities finally ended with the agreement that, following a period of reconciliation, an independence referendum would be held. In 1998, the Nouméa Accord updated this agreement, providing for three independence referendums to be undertaken as part of a process of ‘decolonisation’, which would grant greater autonomy to the people of Kanaky-New Caledonia and ensure that the cultural values and practices of the Kanak people would be respected. As an interim measure, it was decided in 2007 that the electoral body would be ‘frozen’ with respect to local elections, encompassing only those who had resided on the archipelago- officially named New Caledonia but known as ‘Kanaky’ to the indigenous Kanak community- prior to 1998, and their descendants, until all referendums had been held and a way forward had been plotted through open dialogue. This was to ensure that the indigenous population would retain significant political representation in the face of growing immigration from mainland France. 

When, therefore, the French President refused to postpone the third and final independence referendum at the height of the Covid pandemic in 2021, despite the inability of the Kanak population to participate due to the constraints of traditional mourning customs, the process became illegitimate. The official recognition of the results of this referendum- in which the ‘remain’ vote won by a margin of 93%, up from 6.5% the year before- and thus the adoption of the position that the process defined by the Nouméa Accord had been concluded, was the start of the breakdown in dialogue between the French government and leaders of the independence movement, which was only worsened when the prominent hardline loyalist Sonia Backès was appointed to government the following year. 

"As one pro-independence activist told Mediapart, “Nouméa is a pressure cooker. You tear the lid off; it explodes”."

The recent approval given by the National Assembly, therefore, to a bill- put forward without prior consultation of indigenous leaders- which would ‘unfreeze’ the electoral body was, for the younger generation of Kanak people, the final straw. Following waves of immigration from France, at one point explicitly encouraged by the French government who sought to bury the independence movement, Kanak people now represent no more than 41% of the population. As such, many indigenous people saw the bill as a threat to their very survival as a community.

The Nouméa Accord was intended to reduce wealth disparity on the archipelago. However, twenty-six years later, not much has changed. The median standard of living of Kanak people remains drastically lower than that of their non-Kanak peers. While 46% of Kanak adults of working age possess no high school diploma, this only holds true for 11% of Caledonian residents of European descent. In the capital, Nouméa, this wealth disparity is palpable;  in a country which as of 2008 holds the record for the highest number of Porsche Cayennes per head, wealthy white neighbourhoods border slums, in which Kanak people live without running water or electricity. And while this disparity is being obscured by the arrival of lower middle-class families from the French mainland, this influx has led to an event greater scarcity of employment for a community which already possessed staggeringly high unemployment rates. Naturally, then, the result is either desperation, disaffection, or rage. As one pro-independence activist told Mediapart, “Nouméa is a pressure cooker. You tear the lid off; it explodes”.  

It is clear, then, that the true blame for the riots lies with the French state, for the contempt it has displayed towards those indigenous to this profitable colony- Kanaky-New Caledonia not only boasts vast nickel reserves but is strategically positioned to challenge China’s increasing influence over the Indo-Pacific. Contempt can also be seen in its handling of the riots. Recently, a Kanak man was sentenced to six months in the prison of Nouméa- the overcrowded, and undignified state of which the presiding judge took pleasure in hammering home- for having thrown a bottle down the street; all the while, gendarmes have been turning a blind eye to the accumulation of arms on the part of white militias. Indeed, members of these militias, which have thus far been implicated in the deaths of three Kanak people, talk of deals struck with the police.

President Macron’s surprise dissolution of Parliament on 11 June entailed a de facto suspension of the reform bill. After nine deaths, and 7000 left without a livelihood, violent incidents on the archipelago are finally becoming more and more sporadic, yet the future of the land appears uncertain. The only legitimate way for the French state to constructively move forward in its dealings with Kanaky-New Caledonia would begin with declaring the results of the 2021 referendum void. This is not a path that the current French government has been willing to take, and with fears that the far-right will gain control over the French legislature in the upcoming elections, the situation for the Kanak people could deteriorate. However, among the debris and burnt buildings, some hope remains. For as the author and filmmaker Éric Vuillard highlighted in a recent article, ‘no separate society can live peacefully; no colonial society can last forever.’

Image: Flickr



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