Decolonising the 21st Century

Joseph Confavreux

New Caledonia at a tipping point

Recent independence referendums in the South Pacific French territory of New Caledonia have taken place under the wary eye of a French Republic that could – for the first time in its history – take part in a peaceful and democratic decolonisation process. The rising New Caledonian independence movement should be understood by anyone interested in the possibility of living in a post-colonial world.

***Version française ci-dessous***

Should we begin the story in 1853, when New Caledonia was ‘annexed’ by France under Emperor Napoleon III? In 1917, with the great Kanak revolt and its bloody suppression? In 1946, when the indigenous people finally secured the right to vote (albeit still very much only in theory)? In 1988, after the French Army’s killing of 19 separatists following its deployment to put an end to a hostage crisis on the island of Ouvéa, which then forced the French State to open negotiations about New Caledonia’s status? Or in 1998, when the Nouméa Accord was signed, heralding an unprecedented process of decolonisation?

Whatever date is chosen as the starting point for this story, New Caledonia – a small archipelago of islands situated 17,000 kilometres from Paris and 1,500 kilometres off the coast of Australia, named in honour of Scotland by British navigator James Cook when he became the first European to land there at the end of the 18th century – now stands at a tipping point.

The Nouméa Accord

The provisions of the Nouméa Accord, which was the first French Republic-endorsed text to recognise “the shadows of the colonial period”, are coming to an end. Thus, it is not just the institutional future of the archipelago that is being played out at the moment but a present-day decolonisation process. In this context, New Caledonia not only embodies the uglier aspects of France’s past and present – the territory can also point the way toward a possible future, as the French Republic continues to waver between perpetuating the legacies of colonisation and playing a role, however halting, in bringing about a peaceful post-colonial world.

Today, this dilemma has been reinforced by three referendums on the independence of New Caledonia, as provided for under the terms of the Nouméa Accord, after a 20-year process of delegating political and economic power to the indigenous people.

The first referendum, in November 2018, saw 180,000 voters (56.7%) choose to remain part of France. In the second plebiscite, held in October 2020, the gap narrowed, with those opposing independence accounting for 53.26% of votes cast. While this represents a victory for French loyalists, the momentum is with the separatists and could lead to them winning the third referendum, set for 2022.

As French President Emmanuel Macron made clear in a speech just after the results of the referendum held on 4 October 2020, the situation is now “at a crossroads”, as by 2022, “the transitional provisions enshrined in the Constitution must either make way for permanent provisions, if the choice to remain in the Republic is confirmed, or be withdrawn if New Caledonia chooses independence”.

However, what is at stake in these referendums goes beyond the archipelago, challenging France’s ability to look back at the past with a view to moving forward in the future, and doing so against a local backdrop where the wounds are recent and far from healed. Yet this is also a territory whose political maturity is such that it seems possible to go beyond what has been called the “period of events” from 1984 to 1988, marked by blood spilled both on the Kanak side and among the Caldoches (the name used, sometimes pejoratively, for the descendants of European settlers).

“After these terrible events,” says Elie Poigoune, a long-standing leading campaigner for independence, “what intrigued the world at large was that the two sides kept the dialogue going even following the bloodshed. This was demonstrated by the 1988 handshake in Paris between Jean-Marie Tjibaou, the leader of the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front, or FLNKS, and Jacques Lafleur, the figure heading up the anti-independence movement. That image showed it was possible to rise up and overcome terrible events. There are times in history when certain individuals rise up, as Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi did, to send a message whose strength transcends national borders”.

In particular, a vital step came when the Kanaks accepted that other “victims of history” should be involved in the process of redefining New Caledonia’s status. In fact, this concept represented a key milestone in the rapprochement between Kanaks and Caldoches. Developed during the 1983 Nainville-les-Roches roundtable, involving separatists, loyalists and representatives of the French State, the agreement contains the beginnings of the decolonialisation process, both in its recognition of the existence of a “Kanak people” who were the inhabitants of New Caledonia before Europeans arrived and of their “right to independence”, and in its extension of this right to “other ethnicities” who have suffered from colonisation. These include the descendants of convicts and of Communards (members and supporters of the short-lived 1871 Paris Commune) and also of labourers from Asia and the Pacific who were forced to work in the nickel mines that remain a defining feature of the archipelago’s landscape and economy.

This roundtable sketched out the make-up of a Caledonian people, a concept that would evolve over the years but ultimately find expression as the body of New Caledonian citizens allowed to vote in the referendum. This has opened the door to the idea, however difficult it continues to be, of a reversal of the iron law of numbers and demographics, given that the Kanaks today account for just under 40% of New Caledonia’s population.

But how can we ensure that the central idea of a common destiny, vaunted for over 20 years now, is not reduced to a mere slogan? The discourse passed down from the agreements on this common destiny, as well as its institutional reflection provided by the independence referendums, seem all too often to be disconnected from reality, in particular from that of the Kanaks.

The stark polarisation arising from the first two referendums does not help here, as there are still structural dichotomies between the indigenous people and the descendants of the settlers, as well as between the South Province – which includes the capital Nouméa, has the largest population and overwhelmingly rejects independence – and the other two provinces, the North and Loyalty Islands, where ‘yes’ voters predominate. Even the reality on the ground is more complex than the raw statistical data of the results might suggest. Although there remains a structural opposition between separatists and loyalists, there is no rigid dividing line either politically or socially.

For example, there is a sharp division in the anti-independence camp between a hard-core fringe closely associated with the French far-right party National Rally (Rassemblement National, successor to the Front National), whose members are collectively known as ‘loyalists’, and the party Caledonia Together (Calédonie Ensemble), which advocates the development of an inclusive Caledonian sovereignty within France, meaning there will be no turning back the clock even if the ‘no’ side wins.

Moreover, despite working together within FLNKS toward the cause of independence, not all separatists want the complete severance of ties with France. The separatist Kanak Liberation Party (Palika) campaigns for “sovereignty in partnership with France and other countries”, while the Caledonian Union (UC – Union Calédonienne) advocates “a partnership on a level footing with France with no supervisory relationship”, making it possible to resolve the colonial dispute through links involving “free consent”.

There are also the parties representing the Oceanians (in particular from Wallis and Futuna) – the main ethnic group within the New Caledonian mosaic of peoples after the Kanaks and settlers’ descendants – who used to vote overwhelmingly against independence and are now more split on the subject.

In New Caledonia, there has been a lot of mixing of ethnicities and communities, because the predominantly male settlers from metropolitan France often took Kanaks as wives. However, economic power remains the prerogative of a few major dynastic families from mainland France. Voting remains largely determined by ethnic questions, but it would be wrong to think that only Kanaks are in favour of independence and that all Kanaks vote for it.

A corollary of this is that in the October 2020 referendum, the separatists excelled in their strongholds of the North Province and the East Coast, where Kanaks make up more than 95% of the population, but also picked up valuable votes in municipalities, such as Bourail and La Foa, which traditionally favour keeping New Caledonia in the French fold. This is a sign that some descendants of settlers and other Oceanian communities in the territory, particularly outside the Greater Nouméa area, now think they share a common destiny with the indigenous people.

Looking beyond predictions for the next referendum and the issues specific to the archipelago, the political situation in New Caledonia is of broader significance in at least three ways.

Successful decolonisation

The first way that New Caledonia affects France as a whole is the colonial issue and what it can mean, in concrete terms, to inhabit a post-colonial world. This is the key point that Paul Néaoutyine, President of New Caledonia’s North Province since 1999 and one of the main Kanak separatist figures, wants to drive home when asked about the subject: “This vote is of major importance for our country, and also for France, which could emerge with its reputation enhanced if it manages to achieve its first successful decolonisation through a peaceful, negotiated solution.”

Missing this opportunity would be a serious risk, summed up by anthropologist Alban Bensa, one of the leading experts on the archipelago, with this unvarnished assessment: “The French should feel they are affected by the vote if they don’t want to see a repeat of the Algerian war.” For historian Isabelle Merle, who is also a specialist on the region, the process under way in the Pacific archipelago offers a chance to “rethink colonial history, with its conflicts and links which make up a painful past that is still ever present”.

Will France be able to bring about what must be called a ‘decolonisation’ with neutrality, intelligence and sensitivity – rare words indeed in politics? Or will it continue – through pressure, financial blackmail and procedural sleight of hand – to try to influence a vote which must be above all a choice that is completely freely made?

The French Empire is no more. But a similar logic of power remains among a French State and political class still eager for international prestige and a strategy of global influence. France as a cradle of human rights, France as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, France as a nuclear power, France as a holder of far-flung overseas territories described as its “confetti of empire”, France as a mainstay of the French-speaking world as gathered together in La Francophonie, France as a country with an attraction to nickel that was lured by New Caledonia’s mineral-rich soil, justifying the policy of settling in this archipelago 18,000 kilometres from Paris… These are the high-flown arguments put forward time and again by those refusing to consider a different future built by the formerly colonised peoples.

A first peaceful decolonisation in France’s history would undoubtedly facilitate the ability to view contemporary post-colonial difficulties from another perspective, starting with the Overseas Territories, given that, as Isabelle Merle points out, “the pact between metropolitan France and the Overseas Territories is in crisis, whether in French Guiana or in Guadeloupe. New Caledonia has some of the same problems as other formerly colonised territories, which are not calling for independence but which do have similar issues relating to inherited inequalities, economic structures and a failure to tailor school programmes to the local context. Having said that, though, the case of New Caledonia is a bit different because of the presence of an indigenous people.”

The New Caledonian ‘laboratory’

The second reason why New Caledonia could be a source of inspiration, but will also challenge us, is that over the last 30 years, this territory has become something of an institutional ‘laboratory’, with unprecedented powers being granted to territorial political authorities. These include the establishment of institutions in the Kanak tradition, particularly in the field of justice, in parallel with common law; the policy of land redistribution and proactive economic rebalancing; the development of new instruments to assess inequalities, in particular through statistics on ethnicity, and measures to remedy these inequalities…

This puts New Caledonia in a completely unique situation within the supposedly indivisible French Republic, not least vis-à-vis the statuses granted to France’s other overseas departments and territories. While there is certainly no question of seeking to transpose what has been established there to other parts of the Republic, at a time when France is primarily distinguishing itself with its rigidity and empty promises, it is not inconceivable to imagine a situation where there will be a payback effect, where instead of metropolitan France continuing to unilaterally impose itself on territories across the oceans, this Overseas Territory might illuminate some of the country’s black holes and blind spots.

At a time of environmental disasters and ecological stalemate, it is instructive to look at how, in the Loyalty Islands, according to an analysis by Victor David, a researcher in environmental law at the Nouméa IRD (French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development), a mixed environmental law has been jointly constructed. Developed collaboratively, it is based not only on conventional environmental protection rules, but also on ancestral management methods and practices, for which this very notion of ‘environment’ is hardly relevant.

Indeed, the relationship with the land and nature and the Kanak way of interacting with the non-human world have been decisive factors in protecting New Caledonia’s coastline from over-development and the onslaught of tourism, as witnessed in metropolitan France and other Overseas Territories. The ‘forces of nature’ hold a special place in Kanak culture, drawing in particular on the notion of rhee, which does not view them as separate from human life or as a ‘natural’ setting that can be exploited at will.

Another example: at a time when reinventing the commons seems vital to counter the damage caused by the excesses of private interests, it is also worth looking at what the Agency for Rural Development and Land Management has done in the archipelago. The agency has purchased land from private owners who had occupied it since New Caledonia’s colonisation by France, and then allocated it not to individuals but to Kanak clans, in the form of local private law groups (GPDLs), ad hoc legal entities that are unique to New Caledonia. The ancestral lands restored in this way have a special legal status. They are not subject to civil property rights and are considered “inalienable, unremovable, immutable and unassignable”; that is, they cannot change ownership, either voluntarily or by force.

Such an approach has not only placed property transfer processes at the heart of a proactive policy to combat inequalities, but it has also made it possible, thanks to a special, unprecedented status that deviates from the usual way of thinking about the relationship between public and private property, to curb the appetites of large landowners keen to squeeze profit from their land by developing it, regardless of ecological, cultural or social considerations.

According to separatist leader Louis Mapou, the “unique” system created in New Caledonia and the territory’s “special status” may even lead to a debate about the rigidity and limitations of France’s Constitution of the Fifth Republic. “By recognising the Kanaks as a people within the French Republic and by accepting the idea of New Caledonian citizenship, we have already extended the scope of the French Constitution. Could New Caledonia not serve as a model, for example, for considering the recognition of a Corsican people within the Republic, in conjunction with Mediterranean nations and in particular Corsica’s Italian neighbour, in the same way we have links with the Pacific nations and China or Australia?”

Listening to the Kanaks

The last reason that the next referendum is relevant has to do with the way the Kanaks might speak to and challenge us if we could make the effort to listen. “But they are still seen through a primitivist lens,” complains anthropologist Alban Bensa. “In media reports, they’re always singing! Yet we must take them seriously and listen to what they have to tell us.”

The researcher, who has studied in detail what the Kanaks could teach us about conflict resolution, gives the following illustration of this: “For example, they teach us the idea that in a society, we need everyone and that we should never cut ties, even when we have hurled abuse at or even killed each other.” This is also how Joseph Goromido, the mayor of the town of Koné and a member of Palika, part of FLNKS, defends what he calls the “Oceanian method of conflict resolution”, given that it is “interesting to see what small peoples possessing great wealth can bring to the table”. When there is tension, he explains, “the Oceanian way is to always get everyone back on board. We try to find solutions together. Anyone not agreeing nevertheless ends up accepting the general position, while keeping their views and their identity.”

Moreover, “the Kanaks also undoubtedly have things to teach us about meting out punishment and granting forgiveness,” continues Bensa. “Here [in metropolitan France], once you’ve been convicted, you carry it with you forever. For the Kanaks, punishments aren’t crippling and the effectiveness of the measures is constantly reviewed over time.” Joseph Goromido confirms that the Kanaks are “at the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to dealing with problems by force, sanction or imprisonment. We prefer education – patiently persuading those who have lost their way to rejoin us.” 

For the anthropologist specialising in New Caledonia, another lesson the Kanaks teach us is that they remind us that social status and wealth are not the same thing. “We can respect people for their history, even if they are very poor,” he explains. “The social hierarchy and the economic hierarchy are not identical. Kanak society has no class system.”

Whereas France is one of the European countries most hostile to migrants crossing the Mediterranean or the borders of Eastern Europe, it would perhaps make sense to look today at the practices of a territory where, says Alban Bensa, “the principle of hospitality has been elevated to the status of a political project”.

Making way for collective political intelligence, looking back on the past to consider a detoxified post-colonial relationship, demonstrating institutional inventiveness, taking heed of what the Kanaks tell us… All these dimensions also provide the blueprint for another way of thinking about identity – such a divisive concept these days – by viewing it not as the monolithic development of an old strain, but as something “in front of us”, as Jean-Marie Tjibaou famously put it.

Because, as separatist leader Louis Mapou concludes, “the question we are raising here in New Caledonia is about taking account of diversity. How can France, this cradle of human rights and individual freedom, reconcile itself with the fact that people also have their own individual histories?”


About the author

Joseph Confavreux has been a journalist with the left-leaning investigative journal Mediapart since 2011. He was previously a history teacher and a producer at public radio station France Culture. As well as co-editing the book La France Invisible (Invisible France), published by La Découverte in 2007, he coordinated Une décolonisation au présent. Kanaky Nouvelle-Calédonie : notre passé, notre avenir (A present-day decolonisation. Kanaky/New Caledonia: our past, our future), published by La Découverte in 2020. He is also editor-in-chief of the French journal La Revue du Crieur.

Une décolonisation au présentPDF file