Riots in Kanaky force Macron to back down

25 May 2024
Armand Zvenigorodsk
Protesters in Kanaky PHOTO: Supplied

Ten days of demonstrations and riots in Kanaky (called New Caledonia by French colonists) have scored a tremendous victory against the Macron government and its attempt to entrench French domination over the colony it has ruled since the mid-nineteenth century.

The Macron government recently proposed a new law to expand the electoral body and allow tens of thousands of previously ineligible French settlers to vote in local elections. The Kanaks, who now make up just 41 percent of the population because of the continuing influx of French settlers, would thus have been reduced to a definite minority in all provinces.

In response, the Kanak parties—the CCAT (Coordination Unit for Land Actions) which brings together reformists (FLNKS [Kanak and Socialist Liberation Front[, Palika, UC [Caledonian Union]) and more radical organisations like the Labor Party and the USTKE (Union of Kanak and Exploited Workers)—called demonstrations. More than 80,000 Kanaks, one-quarter of the population, came out. The reformist parties called on Paris to withdraw the law, stating that they would be unable to “hold the young” if the law passed. The French National Assembly did not take their appeal into account and adopted the text.

It was this that brought a mass movement of Kanak youth onto the streets, looting stores owned by settlers, certain rich colonial houses and numerous businesses run by settlers, and blocking roads, closing the airport. The settlers, formed into armed militias, fought back to protect their property, killing three Kanaks, potentially opening a situation of insurrectional crisis and the beginning of civil war.

The French state is using, as usual, brutal repression. It has declared a state of emergency, put independence leaders under house arrest and imprisoned hundreds of young Kanaks at the East Camp, a particularly barbaric prison where only Kanaks are incarcerated. The Macron government has rushed armoured trucks and 3,000 soldiers and gendarmes to the island to crush the riots. It has denounced the rioters as “terrorists” and “mafiosi” (which is the height of hypocrisy given the domination of the country by a handful of settler families). This vocabulary is reminiscent of the attitude of the French colonisers in Algeria. Tens of thousands of weapons are circulating in Kanaky, and the colonial police are working hand in hand with the armed settlers.

For years, and with the rise more recently of an extreme right that finds its roots in the organisations of the most violent and racist settlers of French Algeria, the dominant media and bourgeois or reformist politicians have refused to apologise or even reassess France’s long and bloody history of colonialism. Worse, the voices that glorify this colonisation now have a national audience with their own major TV news channels, radio channels and some of the most widely read dailies and weeklies.

French colonisation in Kanaky stretches back nearly two centuries.

When, in 1853, Emperor Napoleon III of France sent Rear Admiral Auguste Febvrier-Despointes to take possession of Kanaky, it was above all a question of countering the influence of the English, who already occupied Australia and New Zealand. The island, just 18,500 square kilometres, became the only French possession in this part of the Pacific.

France founded a city of administration and naval garrison in Nouméa, the current capital of Kanaky, where two-thirds of the population now live.

Napoleon III decided to make “New Caledonia” a French penal colony to hold common law prisoners, along with thousands of political opponents, including the republicans arrested following the defeated 1848 revolution and the emperor’s 1851 coup d’état, fighters from the 1871 Paris Commune, including one of its leaders, Louise Michel, and Algerian independence fighters. By 1877, New Caledonia held 11,000 convicts, two-thirds of the French population on the island.

Convicts sent to the Pacific penal colony for lengthy terms of imprisonment were offered a reduced sentence on the condition that they cultivate the land once released. This was land the Kanaks were driven off. The Indigenous population was thrown into dire poverty, forced to scratch a living from uncultivable land.

In 1878, Chief Ataï led a revolt against colonisation and land dispossession. The authorities crushed it savagely. Ataï was decapitated and his head kept in Paris until 2014.

In 1894, France made New Caledonia a “free” settlement colony, offering French people who wanted to settle in the archipelago the best land. These first settlers, called the Caldoches, concentrated the wealth plundered from the indigenous population.

The Kanak population, already robbed of land, were further pushed to the margins. By 1901, the Kanaks owned only 13 percent of the land.

In 1917, the Kanaks rose up against forced recruitment into the French army and dispossession. New bloody repression followed. The native code then became law in all French colonies, allowing the colonists to take justice into their own hands without trial and ensuring a subhuman status for the Kanaks. It was at this time that the idea was born among the French bourgeoisie of creating an assimilated Kanak elite.

During the 1931 colonial exhibition in Paris, undoubtedly the apogee of French colonisation, the Kanaks were placed in a human zoo, in the Bois de Vincennes, where the French from the “metropolis” (the “mother earth” which directs its “children”, the colonies) could come and admire a “reconstituted” Kanak tribe. The 12th arrondissement of Paris, host to this exhibition, has hardly changed—neither the names of the executioners given to the streets and boulevards, nor the statues and bas-reliefs to the glory of colonial expeditions or showing “the Savages”.

Until World War II, Nouméa was called “White Nouméa”; the Kanaks had no right to live there. It was an apartheid town. The presence during the war of a US base of more than 100,000 men brought African Americans to Nouméa, but also many Kanaks employed by the US army, so much so that after the war, it became impossible for white racists to continue to bar Kanaks from Nouméa.

Nonetheless, this had little impact on the city. Even today, the south of Nouméa is dominated by the settler population and resembles a large French seaside city with its jet ski rentals, its French regional brasseries and the almost total absence of Kanaks, who are banned from the bars and clubs. As riots raged just kilometres away, Europeans continued to drink cocktails at the swanky beach bars in the south of the city.

North of Nouméa, behind a dangerous four-lane road, Kanak shanty towns dominate. Further away, the less precarious Kanak neighbourhoods are no less places of poverty and discrimination, at all levels. Even young Kanaks who have studied in France face high unemployment.

The Caldoches own the land, buildings, shops (products are 72 percent more expensive than in France), the nickel production and extraction apparatus, beautiful houses and swimming pools. Before World War II, a few trading houses controlled almost the entire economic fabric. These houses remain the foundation of the bourgeoisie of Nouméa today.

The Indigenous population are impoverished, despite the emergence of a small Kanak petty bourgeoisie.

In the 1960s, France organised a new wave of settlement following its loss of Algeria and the opening up of highly profitable nickel deposits on the island. In 1972, the French prime minister called for massive acceleration of colonisation of Kanaky. This pushed the Kanaks into a minority in their own land. These neo-colonists, often people who had fallen on hard times or been professionally disgraced, or simply young unemployed looking for adventure, moved to Kanaky to take advantage of the colonial privilege granted to settlers.

The riots that have broken out come 40 years after the last upsurge of Kanak resistance. In the years 1984 to 1988, a Kanak revolt was in full swing, involving roadblocks, riots and mass demonstrations. The Kanaks demanded independence, an end to exploitation and a socialist society. The FLNKS, founded in 1984, brought together most of the Kanak organisations of the time.

Such was the scale of the revolt that the French and Caldoche bourgeoisie feared a loss of control of the territory. The repression was again terrible. It culminated in the assassination of 19 Kanak militants who had taken French gendarmes hostage and held them in a cave on the island of Ouvéa. The last independence activist taken by the French army was thrown alive into the ocean from a helicopter.

Repression was followed by so-called “common destiny”, an attempt by settlers and Kanak reformists to ensure the security and longevity of the colonial situation. The 1988 Matignon Agreement, followed in 1998 by the Nouméa Accord, sought to “rebalance” politics in the colony. The authorities extended access to water and electricity and built roads in Kanak areas. Modest political decentralisation allowed a degree of autonomy for the three provinces, that of the North, the South and the Loyalty Islands, which reduced the most visible forms of discrimination.

The North province, predominantly Kanak and the poorest of the provinces, is managed by a small fringe of a Kanak bourgeoisie that has become co-manager of the archipelago and takes shares in the North Nickel factory. The South province, with Nouméa, concentrates the majority of wealth, population and production, the Caldoches having also developed a nickel processing factory in direct competition with that of the North.

From a political point of view, the Nouméa Accords at the same time provided for a validation of the colonial situation with the idea of a “common destiny” bringing together dispossessed and discriminated indigenous people and settler owners, as well as the other communities present on the island: the Asians who have long served as labour for the settlers, and the Wallisians (from Wallis and Futuna) who served as police auxiliaries to the settlers.

The agreement further provided for a process of “independence”, allowing “New Caledonia” to manage itself and establishing a special status for this French colony vis-à-vis others that are given less autonomy.

The successful bet of the Caldoche bourgeoisie has been to count on the Kanaks becoming a minority, which they now are. The first two referendums provided for by the agreement gave a majority No to independence, while the third was boycotted by the separatists. Many Kanaks have been removed from the electoral lists while the loyalist government has authorised the purchase and possession of weapons in the territory.

Macron's aggressive move to marginalise the Kanak population by padding the electorate with additional settlers called into question this pseudo-assimilation, and put an end to the lie of “common destiny” with its promise of uniting “Caledonia” and bringing the settler owners together with their Kanak employees.

The riots, however, have forced Macron into a humiliating retreat. Politicians in Paris who were set to endorse the bill in a joint sitting of parliament began to get cold feet in the face of the explosion of anger among young Kanaks and the burning of French property. Macron was forced to rush to Kanaky to consult loyalist and separatist leaders and to see for himself the effects of the riots. Macron has now abandoned efforts to get his electoral changes through immediately.

While Macron stated that the state of emergency will not be lifted until “calm” has returned to Nouméa, it is clear that this is a magnificent victory for the separatists. It has been a real demonstration that fighting back works, contrary to the compromises of the Kanak reformist parties that disowned the rioters. And it is a signal for all those colonised by France, but also for all workers.

The Kanak separatists who courageously and forcefully promoted this struggle, by targeting economic interests directly, by permanently threatening the ability of the colonial power to make profits, by plunging the exploiting settlers into fear, showed the way.

Meanwhile, on the ground, settler militias continue with impunity to police their neighbourhoods with arms. But already, many newly arrived colonists have decided to return to France.

The struggle is not over. But the victories gained here mean that the situation will never be the same again.

Armand Zvenigorodsk is a French socialist who lived in Kanaky in the 2010s and supported the independence movement. Translated by Tom Bramble.

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