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The legacy of French colonialism, and the problematic case of New Caledonia

Written by: Erell Mourouga

One of the latest and furthest territories to integrate metropolitan France and most fractured politically, New-Caledonia is at the dawn of a third and final independence referendum. Its outcome in December 2021 will not only impact the geo-politics of the South Pacific region – an area of great interest in light of China’s increasing influence – but also reflects a crucial turning point in France’s post-colonial identity-making and rebuilding.

The last French colony’ gained a sui generis status following the 1998 Nouméa Accords. It is the only overseas territory to be administered in this way. This marked the end of the troubled period of the 1980s – blandly called ‘les évènements’ (the Events) by the French press, but described by many New-Caledonians as a true civil war. This tense period was marked by the 1988 Ouvéa hostage crisis, in which nineteen Kanak separatists and two gendarmes were killed. The army was deployed on French soil for the first time since the Algerian war. Philippe Legorjus, head of the GIGN (counterterrorist unit) at the time argues: “It was as if France was declaring war on its own territory”. 

The first president to visit the archipelago, Emmanuel Macron, praised sixty years later “how far we have come in recent decades”. In his emotionally loaded speech – six months before the second independence referendum – Macron appeals to the common future of the archipelago within France, insisting on a will to “rassembler” (a popular phrase amongst French politicians meaning to bring together, or reconcile). In a rather remarkable rhetorical exercise, Macron distinguishes himself from previous statesmen by recognising past sufferings, without ever directly blaming France. “There has been pain, suffering (…) faults and crimes” but assures “never have we evaded the past”. 

Ethnogenesist delineation, or inherent ethnic identification, is embedded in contemporary New-Caledonian politics. Founder of the Kanak independence movement Tjibaou famously told anti-independence politician Lafleur in 1990: “We are from here and nowhere else. You are from here, but also from somewhere else”. This strong ethnic divide is reflected in the political polarisation of society. 96.1% of Kanaks (Indigenous New-Caledonians, constituting 40% of the population) voted in favour of the independence in 2018, while 89% of the Caldoches (of European descent, making up 24% of the population) expressed themselves against independence

Kanak culture plays a heavy role in the nationalist claim to power. At a festival promoting Kanak culture in 1975, Tjibaou said: “Our claim is foremost cultural, but there is no cultural claim that does not have institutional and therefore political resonances”. Besides a desire to revive its music, danse and cuisine, Kanak ethno-nationalism stresses the importance of the community tied to the land (soil) as the basis of New-Caledonian identity, with distinct gender roles, affirming the man’s social status and primary motherly role of the woman – which ironically offers a conspicuous echo to nationalism found on the mainland!

The pro-independence Kanak movement however struggles to convince voters – failing to win the 2018 and 2020 independence referendums. However, the clear socio-economic inequalities in New-Caledonia (which have prevailed since 1998), will continue to provide legitimacy and fertile grounds for nationalism. Moreover, the timing of such a vote comes at a time of great controversy with the denunciation of nuclear testing in French Polynesia which resulted in serious health problems for local populations. Such are the consequences of colonial oppression, very much alive today.

Confronted with alienating identity-making rhetoric by both factions, New-Caledonia strives to achieve societal reconciliation. In 2010, it adopted a new moto: “Land of speech, land of sharing” (terre de parole, terre de partage) and officially recognised both flags, which was described by Macron in his Nouméa speech as “a first step towards an identity sign in which all Caledonians could see themselves”. Macron stresses the necessity to recognise a common past to build a joint future – to be constructed in light of pressing geo-political ambitions in the South Pacific, climate change challenges, as well as socio-economic and security needs… a lot of promises in a political quest to seduce the hearts of the New-Caledonians.
This referendum, and the nationalist animosity that it emulates, reveals – besides France’s obvious inability to recognise and address its colonial past – the striking disparity between its territories to this day. Aside from the urban-regional struggle brought to light by the Yellow Vests movement, there is a strong mainland-overseas discrepancy which challenges the republican agency of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’. The inability to include New-Caledonia in the post-colonial remaking of France makes the question Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent? not just a question of simple political independence, but of how best to conduct the process of decolonization. We have witnessed the effects of colonisation, now we have to address its consequences.

Featured image by Paul Kagame (Flickr/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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