How French colonisation set New Caledonia on fire

The gutted remains of six cars smoulder in a parking lot in Nouméa, capital of the South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia. Smoke billows over the city, a grey backdrop for the colourful flags flown by the Indigenous Kanak people as they take to the streets in protest.

It’s May 15 2024, and the French Pacific territory is gripped by riots, violence and at least six deaths, a crisis kicked off by a constitutional change taking place over 16,000 kilometres away.

In the coming days, hundreds of French gendarmes will attempt to put out the flames.

FILE – Smoke rises during protests in Noumea, New Caledonia, Wednesday May 15, 2024.

May’s sometimes deadly clashes were triggered by French President Emmanuel Macron’s attempts to change the French Constitution and alter the membership of voting lists in the occupied territory. And while the state of emergency imposed to stop the violence has been lifted, the smoking ruins and bad feeling of the conflict remain.

The spark

Currently, only Kanaks and those who arrived from France before 1998 can cast their ballots in elections – something Macron wants to change. About 40,000 French citizens have moved to New Caledonia since 1998.

But New Zealand-based University of Canterbury academic David Small tells Euronews that the impetus for the conflict stretches further back than recent political events, with “a lot of bloodshed and a lot of suffering”.

The saga began with the 1988 Matignon accord, says the senior lecturer, who has a relationship with the Kanaky Aotearoa Solidarity group. This was followed up by the Nouméa accord in 1998, which aimed to establish New Caledonian autonomy over a 20-year transition period. 

A referendum on independence was ultimately held in 2018, ending with a vote in favour of the status quo.

Macron scrapped the accord last year, reportedly because the third New Caledonian independence referendum – marred by controversy and boycotts – yielded another “no” victory in 2021.

Small says that these events signalled to the Kanak people that they “don’t decide on anything”, spurring them into open protest.

“France decides,” he says. “France decided to pull the plug [on independence]. France pulled the plug because of colonisation.”

Fire in the belly

At the start of May, young people took to the palm-tree-lined streets to demonstrate against Macron’s proposed changes. They were “angry with France”, Small says, and “frustrated” with Kanak leaders whom they considered “too conciliatory” in their dealings with Paris.

“They could have accepted France if it delivered the goods, but now they have delivered nothing,” he says. “It’s been really hard to restore that calm.”

Small points out that Kanak’s standards of living are still extremely poor. According to the 2019 census, 32.5% of Indigenous Kanaks – who make up 41% of the region’s total population – live in poverty. That is more than three times the poverty rate among New Caledonia’s mostly Caucasian non-Kanak inhabitants.

Kanak people are also reportedly far more likely to come into contact with the justice system.

“Everybody knows people who have been in prison,” Small says.

A woman waves a Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) flag in Noumea, New Caledonia, Wednesday May 15, 2024.

In 2011, New Caledonia was visited by the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya. After her nine-day excursion, she reported hearing “repeated expressions of frustration” from the Kanak people “about ongoing patterns of discrimination, limitations on the exercise of their customary rights, poor social and economic conditions, and [a] lack of adequate participation in decisions affecting them in many respects.”

What now?

The French prosecutor in New Caledonia said authorities have opened an investigation into the unrest, this after Macron lifted the state of emergency to help facilitate dialogue between local parties and French government for the future of the territory, and to restore peace to its 270,000 inhabitants.

Pro-independence parties and Kanak leaders have also urged Macron to withdraw the electoral reform bill if France wants to bring the crisis to an end. 

French President Emmanuel Macron (right) walks past New Caledonia’s President Louis Mapou (left) in Noumea, New Caledonia, Thursday, May 23, 2024.

But Small warns that there is a “shockingly right-wing racist core” among the settler population in New Caledonia, which he estimates would make up at least two-thirds of the recent (96%) anti-independence referendum vote.

As he sees it, these individuals are loyal to the European power and not the Indigenous population. They are the ones keeping New Caledonia within the colonial giant’s grasp.

But if the French government relies too heavily on these loyalists to obstruct the Kanak desire for self-determination, he says, “the chaos will remain”.

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