Published daily by the Lowy Institute

New Caledonia: decolonisation in conversation

Locals in New Caledonia share their views about the territory’s prospects ahead of the November ballot on independence.

Nouméa, New Caledonia (Photo: jean-paul beaudeau/Flickr)
Nouméa, New Caledonia (Photo: jean-paul beaudeau/Flickr)
Published 10 Jul 2018 

Speaking of “decolonisation” conjures memories of the 1950s and the wave of new nations that emerged, particularly in Africa, as European colonialism gave way to calls for emancipation in the post-1945 new world order.

In contrast to the heady unrest which preceded the first referendum in 1987, in 2018 there is evidence that people are carefully weighing the consequences of political change.

Contemporary conversations with communities in New Caledonia reveal how visions of a postcolonial future in the modern era are being shaped in a highly globalised world. In November, citizens in this French overseas territory will cast votes in their second referendum on independence.

In contrast to the heady unrest which preceded the first referendum in 1987, in 2018 there is evidence that people are carefully weighing the consequences of political change. New Caledonians speak not only of concerns that embrace historical justice and indigenous rights, but also of global forces generating economic uncertainty and the small territory’s vulnerability to geopolitical power plays in the Asia-Pacific region.

Full self-determination, including separatism, is still the aspiration of many in the pro-independence movement. But there are varying interpretations of an “independent” future.

On 4 May, the day after French President Emmanuel Macron’s arrival for his first official visit, approximately 4000 people gathered in central Noumea for a “March for France”. The moving mass of red, white, and blue paraded past luxury apartments and bobbing yachts in Moselle Bay. Some simply voiced their pride in French identity, while others had specific reasons for wanting France to “remain”. European settlers represented the majority, but the demonstration drew a diverse following. Manuela, a young woman participating in the march, said:

France is like a protector of New Caledonia. If France was not here, we would be just a tiny island surrounded by very big states, like China.

The younger generation are also considering their economic future in a regional periphery. New Caledonia is wealthy in nickel reserves, but the French government’s substantial funding of the territory’s public sector, amounting to about AU$1.5 billion per annum, is seen as some guarantee of economic stability amid fluctuating global markets. Guylene, an 18-year-old Kanak woman from the Loyalty Islands who is studying law, said:

New Caledonia is a country with a difficult history. I think independence is necessary, but there is the issue of the economy. France gives a lot of money.

On the other hand, she suggested greater economic self-sufficiency could be achieved by developing local tourism and forestry industries. But there was no trace of hesitancy when our conversation touched on the issue of inequality. Guylene said:

There are so many inequalities between people based on ethnicity.

It is a topic that resonates with Romain Hmeun, head of the local indigenous radio station, Radio Djiido, housed in the quiet backblocks of Noumea. Here he holds forth with a grounded presence and unwavering gaze beneath a mass of dreadlocks.

Romain acknowledges that government policies introduced following the 1988 Matignon and 1998 Noumea Accords have led, for example, to improved infrastructure and education services in rural areas. Yet he points to the prevalence of his people in low-paid jobs, and signs of frustrated aspirations among the most disenfranchised:

The context has changed. At the same time, Kanak youth, who are hungry for freedom, justice and equality, still live with inequalities of the past. Kanak youth have more access to information, maybe to education and training, but ultimately they consider themselves still marginalised in many parts of the country’s life.

While access to education has improved in the past 20 years, the Kanak youth unemployment rate is an alarming 38%.

All New Caledonians are French citizens, yet Romain still speaks of Kanaks as “colonised people”. Decolonisation is essential for tackling social justice, he said, describing this within the philosophical vision of a “common destiny”, as outlined in the Noumea Accord, rather than a specific political framework:

The common destiny is a declared will of the politicians to build a society where inequalities are banned, where every citizen has a chance of finding work, to build a life ... and there is no longer dominant and dominated.

Despite glaring inequities, ambivalence about the referendum is not uncommon among the younger generation living in squatter settlements on Noumea’s fringes. Nouvelle, home to about 300 people, is within walking distance of the city’s fashion boutiques and cafes serving coffee and croissants. The distinctive Kanak flag swings from a pole at the entrance to the community.

People here live without proper water and sanitation and only use electricity if they can afford a generator. Joannes, a 35-year-old resident, said:

I will not vote in the referendum because all the political parties are corrupt. We have had people in political power here for 5, 10, 15 years and still nothing changes. 

Even veteran activists are grappling with the principles they fought for and the demographic and political reality which has shifted since the 1980s, resulting in Kanaks becoming a minority in their own islands. Edouard Katrawa, a member of the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), remembers the tragic sacrifices on Ouvéa Island in May 1988 during bloody confrontations between indigenous separatists and French forces. He said:

With the visit of President Macron, France believes in repentance. For us, maybe we forgive. Maybe say sorry, but we will never forget.

However, he describes “decolonisation” in terms of reconfigured relations between France and New Caledonia, rather than outright secession: 

We have the common past and the common history, and we believe in the common future ... [but] I wish, after the referendum, for relations based on freedom, equality, and cooperation.

Still, Victor Tutugoro, who is from the pro-independence heartland of the North Province and is President of the Melanesian Progressive Union, pushes against suggestions that indigenous voters will abandon demands for full sovereignty. He hails the role of Kanak leaders in driving reforms on equitable developmentYet, at the same time, he hinted at future possibilities by emphasising:

President Macron’s declared desire that New Caledonia accompany France in its ambitions in Indo-Pacific geopolitics as a certain acquiescence to sovereignty in partnership.

What form a future “sovereignty in partnership” might take is yet to emerge.

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