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A Kanak flag flies next to a burning vehicle at a roadblock in La Tamoa, Paita, to the north of Nouméa (Photo: DELPHINE MAYEUR/AFP via Getty Images)
A Kanak flag flies next to a burning vehicle at a roadblock in La Tamoa, Paita, to the north of Nouméa (Photo: DELPHINE MAYEUR/AFP via Getty Images)

SocietyMay 20, 2024

In stories of unrest in New Caledonia, Kanak voices should not be an afterthought

A Kanak flag flies next to a burning vehicle at a roadblock in La Tamoa, Paita, to the north of Nouméa (Photo: DELPHINE MAYEUR/AFP via Getty Images)
A Kanak flag flies next to a burning vehicle at a roadblock in La Tamoa, Paita, to the north of Nouméa (Photo: DELPHINE MAYEUR/AFP via Getty Images)

With Nouméa reeling as mainly young, politically active Kanak people take to the streets and protest, a spirit that has been dormant since the 1980s has awoken. Tāmaki Makaurau-based Kanak Joseph Xulué provides some context.

As reports continue to emphasise the fires burning through the streets of Nouméa (the capital city of Kanaky – New Caledonia), with businesses looted and people dying, it’s understandable for an observer, without context, to focus their attention on the supposed anarchy. For the French settlers from metropolitan France who rarely worry about their privilege while living on a paradisiacal island, it is understandable to chide those who disturb your enchanted life. As a French president and the incumbent head of a colonising state 17,000 kilometres away, worrying about your country’s strategic position in the South Pacific and the new wave of anti-French sentiment expressed by your country’s former colonies, it is understandable that you would rush to defend your nickel-endowed jewel in that region. These are the perspectives that are centred, not just when tempers are flaring, but in the majority of matters that affect the political and economic landscape of Kanaky. 

So often, the voices and aspirations of Kanaks are an afterthought in these stories unless they are the ones perceived to be acting unreasonably or irrationally. Only then do our perspectives matter. When, in the most recent referendum on independence in 2021 (said to be the last of three), Kanaks boycotted the vote en masse, many in the loyalist faction (as in the people loyal to France) saw Kanak actions as unreasonable. The loyalists insisted that the boycott sent a clear message that Kanaks knew they would lose, knowing that many New Caledonians would vote “no” to independence. The audacity to say this despite a trend over the course of the preceding referendums that showed an increase in support for independence was unsurprising, but still uncouth.

Kanaks decided to boycott the 2021 referendum because the majority of people who died as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic in New Caledonia were Kanak. Many Kanak communities were still mourning their dead and as custom dictates, this period traditionally lasts at least one year. For Kanak people, it would be insensitive to campaign on a referendum when their communities were still mourning the dead. Despite making this known to the French government in advance of the proposed referendum date, they refused to delay the referendum. 

A resident of Nouméa’s Vallée du Tir watches over a roadblock on May 16, 2025 (Photo: DELPHINE MAYEUR/AFP via Getty Images)

This is but one example of many refusals by the French government to uphold their commitment to Kanak self-determination in a longstanding agreement known as the Nouméa Accords. The Nouméa Accords, signed in 1998, succeeded a peace treaty called the Matignon Accords from 1988. It’s important to mention the Matignon Accords, because they were signed following a decade of civil unrest in Kanaky referred to as “the Troubles”. The 1980s is considered to be the height of Kanak resistance and uprising: many Kanaks were imprisoned, beaten (some of them my own family and extended family) and killed during a slew of clashes culminating in the Ouvéa hostage crisis in 1988, where Kanak freedom fighters killed four gendarmerie and took 27 others hostage in caves on the island of Ouvéa.

The French government, in a now chilling ode to the past, sent a large operative force from France to effectively eliminate the Kanak usurpers – killing 16 of the 30 Kanaks directly involved. To unilaterally stop the uprising and associated violence, the FLNKS (Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front), led by Jean-Marie Tjibaou, signed the Matignon Accords with the French government, which instituted a new path to Kanak social and economic development. For some Kanaks, especially those who’d lost family and were relentlessly abused by French law enforcement (even well before the 1980s), they saw this as a disappointing capitulation to the coloniser, just when they felt they had the ascendancy. Tjibaou was assassinated by a Kanak shortly after signing the Matignon Accords. If there was ever a sign that Kanaks were willing to risk everything for their land, people and culture, this was probably it. Tjibaou has since been immortalised with an eponymous cultural centre, erected by the French government.

The Nouméa Accords, signed a decade after the events of the 1980s, included the first-ever recognition by France of Kanaks as the indigenous peoples of Kanaky and a corresponding need to address the historical wrongs against Kanaks perpetrated by France. The Accords also outlined the need to rebalance the social, economic and political imbalance that existed in favour of the French expat community, the need to transfer governance powers from France to Kanaky, and the creation of a series of referendums on independence. Effectively, the Accords were meant to ensure the decolonisation of New Caledonia, albeit the mechanism that would allow for a transition away from French rule were the referendums on independence. 

Jean-Marie Tjibaou (right) and Yeiwéné Yeiwéné of the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front in November 1988 (Photo: REMY MOYEN/AFP via Getty Images)

Whether it was intended or not by the French government in the negotiation process, and whether the Kanaks signing the Accords were unaware of the consequences that would follow, the referendums ultimately skewed power into the hands of the French government and by extension, those loyal to France. The first of the referendums would take place 10 years after the signing of the Accords, and 30 years after the Troubles. In the meantime, between 1998 and 2018 (when first referendum after the Accords was held), the economic and political policies under the Accords that were initially aimed at improving the lives of Kanaks would render Kanaky an attractive destination. Approximately 16,000 French citizens would immigrate to Kanaky from France, and there would be a noticeable movement of those from neighbouring Pacific countries that were still overseas French territories, like Wallis and Futuna.

Conversely, the programmes, unsurprisingly, would do very little to raise the quality of life for Kanaks and they would continue to experience the same marginalisation they had endured since before the signing of the Accords. The narrative about the political impact of referendums necessarily changed. The discussion was no longer a binary of Kanak self-determination vs French colonial rule in an effort to decolonise, but rather, a discussion about co-existence – a common destiny for all. Some Kanaks perhaps naively tied their fight for self-determination to a “yes” to independence in the referendums. It then became much easier for loyalist factions to frame the referendums as a way to ensure the continued prosperity of New Caledonia for all, and that pro-independence votes were a separatist, radicalised, almost exclusively Kanak stop-gate on peaceful relations among all of New Caledonia’s residents. The results came in and all of the referendums resulted in votes to stay in the French Republic. 

A man votes in the independence referendum in Nouméa on December 12, 2021 (Photo: THEO ROUBY/AFP via Getty Images)

Now in May 2024, Nouméa is reeling as mainly young, politically active Kanak people are taking to the streets and protesting. The spirit that has been dormant since the 1980s has awoken. No one condones violence or the killing of anyone on either side of the political gambit. But Kanaks are once again feeling like they are being silenced, following the recent tabling of an electoral reform bill in far-away France. The reform seeks to amend the “special electorate” which in New Caledonia is made up of persons eligible to vote in the provincial assembly elections, the forum that ultimately decides on the makeup of governance in New Caledonia. The bill will effectively add almost 25,000 more people (predominantly French immigrants to New Caledonia and their descendants) to this special electoral roll.

For Kanak people, there is a fear that once the bill is passed and the constitution is changed, it will dilute Kanak political power. In the context of a vexed history with the French government and a continued dilution of Kanak political power, this fear is completely understandable. And as France declares a state of emergency, allowing themselves to send hundreds of law enforcement officers once again to New Caledonia and arbitrarily place people on house arrest, the question becomes: has the era of the Nouméa Accords finished and does a new one soon begin? Or, is this a fight that simply paused for 36 years and we must reconcile with an Accords process that seemingly did little for Kanak people?

The views expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer.

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