Kanak people resist French colonial rule in New Caledonia

In this interesting article for Struggle La Lucha, Sharon Black details the recent uprising of the Kanak people in New Caledonia, a French colony in the South Pacific. The immediate trigger for the uprising was a vote by France’s National Assembly on a constitutional amendment that will introduce significant new hurdles on the path towards New Caledonia’s independence; however the underlying cause is longstanding: “the deep economic divide between the wealthy French population and the Kanak people and the unsolved and bitter question of sovereignty and independence for New Caledonia.”

Sharon notes that, in response to the pro-independence rebellion, “France has deployed an additional thousand troops to its overseas territory of New Caledonia, joining the 1,700 police and military personnel already present. The French gendarmes have meant the death of seven and the arrests of hundreds following a declaration of a state of emergency and the imposition of a curfew.”

Aside from the direct economic importance of New Caledonia – which as the article points out produces one-third of the world’s nickel and holds around 11 percent of the world’s total nickel reserves – the struggle of the Kanak people for independence also has geopolitical significance, given that the archipelago is located “in Australia’s backyard, patrolled by the US military, and in the crosshairs of Western capitalist machinations against China’s Belt and Road initiative.”

French opposition to independence has explicitly been framed in terms of the need to prevent China from gaining a foothold in the region. Visiting the capital Nouméa in 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron warned that independence from France would essentially mean handing sovereignty over to China. “If independence means choosing tomorrow to have a Chinese [naval] base here or to be dependent on other fleets, good luck!”

Sharon further cites right-wing French politician Xavier Bertrand as saying that New Caledonia “either stays French or it will become Chinese.”

In other words, the French ruling class is hoping to hold on to their South Pacific colonies as part of the US-led strategy to encircle China. The Kanak people’s struggle for independence is therefore not only a struggle against French colonialism, but is connected to the broader global struggle against imperialism and for a multipolar world.

In response to a popular uprising led by pro-independence Indigenous Kanak youth, France has deployed an additional thousand troops to its overseas territory of New Caledonia, joining the 1,700 police and military personnel already present. The French gendarmes have meant the death of seven and the arrests of hundreds following a declaration of a state of emergency and the imposition of a curfew.

Roadblocks have shut down key arteries to Nouméa, the capital city, and the airport. Australian and New Zealand tourists have hunkered down, and French settlers in wealthy areas in Nouméa have brandished weapons to protect businesses.

The rebellion has followed weeks of major demonstrations and growing frustrations fed by the French parliament’s arrogant passage of a constitutional amendment that would further liquidate the voting power of the country’s Indigenous population and stall independence. 

While the French bourgeoisie may temporarily solve the immediate crisis by force — which remains to be seen — it is a pyrrhic victory. 

Crushing the rebellion will not solve the root cause fueling anger: the deep economic divide between the wealthy French population and the Kanak people and the unsolved and bitter question of sovereignty and independence for New Caledonia. 

At the time of this writing, May 23, French President Emmanuel Macron and Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu have landed in New Caledonia, and some limited flights have taken out tourists. Macron said he would delay the implementation of the anti-Kanak constitutional amendment (a delay is only temporary) while snarling that French troops would remain “as long as necessary.”

What’s at stake is how long France’s occupation forces remain in the archipelago. 

Key factors behind recent events 

The archipelago, roughly the size of New Jersey, produces one-third of the world’s nickel and holds around 11% of the world’s total nickel reserves. According to GlobalData, it produced 193,600 tons of nickel in 2023 out of 3.3 tons globally. Nickel is key to producing batteries for the electric car industry. 

The local nickel industry is dominated by the French company Eramet, which has a 60% interest in its nickel mining subsidiary. Tesla has also been involved in worming its way into New Caledonia’s nickel production. Who controls this industry and its environmental impact remains a top issue for the Kanak people.

What is just as important and strategic to Western capitalist interests is New Caledonia’s location straddling the Indo-Pacific region; it’s literally in Australia’s backyard, patrolled by the U.S. military, and in the crosshairs of Western capitalist machinations against China’s Belt and Road initiative. 

The May 17 Reuters article spells it out: “French response in New Caledonia risks helping China, analysts say.” French and pro-loyalist politicians have brazenly played the China card. A right-wing politician, Xavier Bertrand, said New Caledonia “either stays French or it will become Chinese.” Macron has peddled the same message, though less overtly. 

France has three military bases, including the Pointe Chalaix Naval Base, with air force and naval aviation at the Paul Klein Air Base. In 2022, France announced it would increase its military surveillance potential in the Pacific by building a new docking quay at the Chaleix naval base,

During World War II, U.S. imperialism, in its scramble against the Japanese, built a huge naval base. The U.S. was becoming the “top dog” in the imperialist world and barely bothered to get French consent. In addition, the U.S. used the archipelago as a camp for Japanese prisoners.

This statement from Prime Minister Pierre Messmer in 1972 clearly declares the colonial intent of France’s ruling elite: 

“The French presence in Caledonia can only be threatened, barring world war, by a nationalist demand of the indigenous populations, supported by a few possible allies in other communities ethnic people from the Pacific. In the short and medium term, the massive immigration of French citizens from mainland France or from overseas departments should make it possible to avoid this danger, by maintaining or improving the numerical ratio of communities. In the long term, indigenous nationalist demands will only be avoided if non-Pacific communities represent a majority population.” (Note that this policy coincided with the nickel boom of the 1970s.)

The current events in New Caledonia follow France’s debacle in Africa, where it was ousted from Central Africa and the Sahel.

When ‘democracy’ is anything but democratic 

On May 15, France’s National Assembly voted on a constitutional amendment to “unfreeze” the voter list for New Caledonia’s pro-independence referendums and provincial elections, allowing French nationals who emigrated in the last 10 years to vote.

If finalized at the end of June by France’s full parliament, it would scrap the 1998 Noumea Accord, which was passed following the intense and bloody struggle of the 1980s that included the brutal assassination of 19 Kanak activists in Ouvéa by the French army (May 1988). The accord’s stated aim was to pave the way to independence and was ratified by 72% of the population. 

The Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) — one of the main independence parties — immediately decried the French parliament’s vote. The proposed new constitutional amendment pushed down the throats of the Kanak people, would liquidate the Indigenous vote, which is approximately 44% of the population.

There are parallels with Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rican people are being driven off their homeland to make way for wealthy land grabbers and gentrifiers. In New Caledonia, the migration of French nationals has increasingly threatened to weaken the strength of the indigenous Kanak vote. France’s recent action accelerates this process.

France’s unilaterally changing the rules is based on the real fear that the pro-independence forces could win a new referendum. There were three earlier referendums; the first two were tipping closer to pro-independence, 

All the major Kanak independence groups boycotted the third referendum in 2021. Kanak leaders from all corners demanded a delay, but Macron refused. The coronavirus was devastating in Kanak communities, whose mourning customs prohibit political activity. 

A new referendum could potentially spell defeat for settler French loyalists and the French government.

Name-calling, TikTok and Azerbaijan

French officials have stooped to name calling, referring to the Coordination Cell of Field Actions (CCAT), the umbrella group instrumental in organizing recent protests, as “mafia.” They wasted no time while calling their disenfranchisement of Indigenous voters “democratic,” shutting down TikTok for being Kanak-friendly and propagating threadbare accusations that Azerbaijan is playing a meddling role inside New Caledonia in the uprising. 

Gerard Darmanin, the French interior minister, made these claims. His proof is that Kanak leaders attended a conference in Turkey organized by Azerbaijani forces titled “Decolonization: Awakening of the Renaissance.” 

French colonization and genocide

In 1853, with a stroke of the pen, Napoleon III annexed the South Seas archipelago of Kanaky, the Indigenous name for New Caledonia. (British Captain James Cook had renamed the islands after Caledonia, the traditional name of Scotland.)

Among the objectives, the French planned to use the territory to set up a penal colony similar to Australia. At that time, an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 Kanak people resided on the Kanaky islands. 

What followed was a brutal enslavement of the Kanak people. Indigenous peoples were rounded up and forced onto reservations, their lands were stolen, and customs trampled. Kanak people were enslaved to perform slave labor in places such as Australia, California, Canada, and South Africa.

A vile practice called “blackbirding,” first introduced by the Australian settlers and slave traders, rounded up local populations, through force and trickery, onto ships transporting their human cargo to sugar plantations in Australia and other islands to perform forced labor. In Kanaky, a massive number of children were kidnapped. In addition, settlers brought diseases. By 1920, the number of Indigenous people on the archipelago was reduced to approximately 20,000. 

Among the groups transported to France’s penal colony were 4,500 members of the Paris Commune. In 1871, the French military slaughtered over 25,000 communards; over 35,000 were arrested, and one-third were condemned by court-martial — others were exiled to New Caledonia. Their conditions were harsh, locked in cages for the four-month sea voyage; later they were isolated in the arid Docus peninsula. 

In 1878, just five years after the communards were dumped in the French Penal Colony, allied Kanak peoples fought back, attacking colonial settlements. In two days, their surprise assault killed settlers, slaughtered European-introduced livestock that destroyed the land, and burned crops. The French responded with escalation and months of retaliation.

In a bitter and painful irony, these same heroic communards who had fought against French tyranny and inequality, who considered themselves socialists, who were exploited workers and poor, took up arms in support of the monarchist-led French colonial authority. 

They had fallen into the grips of a greater monster — the ideology of white supremacist imperialism and bourgeois nationalism. The demonization of Indigenous people as savages and the French construction of a racialized dichotomy labeling Polynesians as “white” and Melanesians as “black,” ranking the Kanak as the lowest of colonized people, was the poisoned drink that fueled this unthinkable twist. 

Louise Michel, an internationally revered communard, resisted. It’s reported that she tore in half the red Commune scarf that she secretly pirated away and gave it to the Kanak headed into battle against the French colonizers. Today’s French workers who are having their pensions stripped away should learn from her example.

Joël Tjibaou, the son of Jean-Marie Tjibaou — the murdered leader of the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front — crystalized the issues, “When you see our country, you understand why we are fighting for independence,” he said. “The white people came here, stole our land, stole our customs, don’t respect us.” 

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