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Déjà Vu In New Caledonia: Why Decades Of Political Failure Will Make This Uprising Hard To Contain

With an air force plane on its way to rescue New Zealanders stranded by the violent uprising in New Caledonia, many familiar with the island’s history are experiencing an unwelcome sense of déjà vu.

When I first visited the island territory in 1983, I interviewed Eloi Machoro, general secretary of the largest pro-independence party, L'Union Calédonienne. It was a position he had held since his predecessor, Pierre Declerq, was assassinated less than two years earlier.

Machoro was angry and frustrated with the socialist government in France, which had promised independence while in opposition, but was prevaricating after coming to power.

Tension was building, and within 18 months Machoro himself was killed by a French military sniper after leading a campaign to disrupt a vote on France’s plans for the territory.

I was in New Caledonia again last December, 40 years after my first visit, and Kanak anger and frustration seemed even more intense. On the anniversary of the 1984 Hienghène massacre, in which ten Kanak activists were killed in an ambush by armed settlers, there was a big demonstration in Nouméa.

Staged by a new activist group, the Coordination Unit for Actions on the Ground (CCAT), it focused on the visit of French defence minister Sébastien Lecornu, who was hosting a meeting of South Pacific defence ministers.

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This followed the declaration by French president Emmanuel Macron, during a visit in July 2023, that the process set out in the 1998 Nouméa Accords had been concluded: independence was no longer an option because the people of New Caledonia had voted against it.

The sense of betrayal felt by the independence movement and many Kanak people was boiling over again. The endgame at this stage is unclear, and a lot will ride on talks in Paris later this month.

French president Emmanuel Macron holds a defence council on the New Caledonia situation, Paris May 20. AAP

End of the Nouméa Accords

The Nouméa Accords had set out a framework the independence movement believed could work. Pro- and anti-independence groups, and the French government, agreed there would be three referendums, in 2018, 2020 and 2021.

A restricted electoral college was established that stipulated new migrants could still vote in French national elections, but not in New Caledonia’s provincial elections or independence referendums.

The independence movement had reason to trust this process. It had been guaranteed by a change to the French constitution that apparently protected it from the whims of any change of government in Paris.

The 2018 referendum returned a vote of 43% in favour of independence, significantly higher than most commentators were predicting. Two years later, the 47% in favour of independence sparked jubilant celebrations on the streets of Nouméa.

Arnaud Chollet-Leakava, founder and president of the Mouvement des Océaniens pour l’Indépendance (and member of CCAT), said he’d seen nothing like the spontaneous outpouring after the second referendum.

It was a party atmosphere all over Nouméa, with tooting horns and Kanak flags everywhere. You’d think we had won.

There was overwhelming confidence the movement had the momentum to achieve 50% in the final referendum. But in 2021, the country was ravaged by COVID, especially among Kanak communities. The independence movement asked for the third referendum to be postponed for six months.

Macron refused the request, the independence movement refused to participate, and the third referendum returned a 97% vote against independence. On that basis, France now insists the project set out in the Nouméa Accords has been completed.

Consensus and crisis

The current turmoil is directly related to the dismantling of the Nouméa Accords, and the resulting full electoral participation of thousands of recent immigrants.

France has effectively sided with the anti-independence camp and abandoned the commitment to consensus that had been a hallmark of French policy since the Matignon Accords in 1988.

Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) president Jean-Marie Tjibaou returned to New Caledonia after the famous Matignon handshake with anti-independence leader Jacques Lafleur. It took Tjibaou and his delegation two long meetings to convince the FLNKS to endorse the accords.

The Ouvéa hostage crisis that claimed 19 Kanak lives just weeks earlier had reminded people what France was capable of when its authority was challenged, and many activists were in no mood for compromise. But the movement did demobilise and commit to a decades-long consensus process that was to culminate in an independence vote.

With France unilaterally ending the process, the leaders of the independence movement have emerged empty-handed. That is what has enraged Kanak people and led to young people venting their anger on the streets.

Protests spread to Paris: a rally called by Caledonian activists in solidarity with Kanak people, Place de la Republique, May 16. AAP

A new kind of uprising

Unlike those of the 1980s, the current uprising was not planned and organised by leaders of the movement. It is a spontaneous and sustained popular outburst. This is also why independence leaders have been unable to stop it.

It has gone so far that Simon Loueckhote, a conservative Kanak leader who was a signatory of the Nouméa Accords for the anti-independence camp, wrote a public letter to Macron on Monday, calling for a halt to the current political strategy as the only way to end the current cycle of violence.

Finally, all this must be seen in even broader historical context. Kanak people were denied the right to vote until the 1950s – a century after France annexed their lands.

Barely 20 years later, France’s then prime minister, Pierre Messmer, penned a now infamous letter to his overseas territories minister. It revealed a deliberate plan to thwart any potential threat to French rule in the colony by ensuring any nationalist movement was outnumbered by massive immigration.

And now France has brought new settlers into the country, and encouraged them to feel entitled to vote. Until a lasting solution is found, either by reviving the Nouméa Accords or agreement on a better model, more conflict seems inevitable.

David Small, Senior lecturer, Above the Bar School of Educational Studies and Leadership, University of Canterbury

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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