In France, Kanaky (New Caledonia)

By John Catalinotto posted on May 25, 2024.
Workers World.org

May 23 − In a direct blow to French imperialism, the Indigenous people of a large island archipelago in the South Pacific began a heroic uprising in early May to prevent the colonial power from turning their islands into an integral part of France.

The French call the island group Nouvelle Caledonie or New Caledonia, an archipelago that the French Empire seized in 1853. France has controlled the colony since that time, despite periodic uprisings by the Indigenous Pacific Islanders, who call the islands Kanaky. In the latest revolt, Kanak pro-independence organizations set up roadblocks throughout the main island that brought economic life to a halt.

French special gendarmes — militarized police — violently intervened to try to break the revolt, firing on the people, killing three Kanak freedom fighters. Two gendarmes were killed, one apparently by “friendly fire” from other gendarmes. One settler who had first opened fire on demonstrators was also killed.

Hundreds of people have been injured and 400 Kanaks arrested. The French authorities also prevented the Kanak people from using social media — in this case TikTok — to prevent scenes of the brutality of the repressive forces from reaching the world, including the people in mainland France.

According to reports from anti-imperialists in Europe, the French corporate media presented the revolt in the terms the ruling class uses to slander any popular uprising against its interests. This media described the Kanak struggle as “violent” and “barbaric.” They used phrases similar to how the Israeli corporate media describes Palestinians and the U.S. media describes uprisings against racist police.

This latest revolt in Kanaky was provoked by a change in the voting regulations that the French government has tried to impose. The new rules aim to guarantee that Kanaky remains part of France. They deny independence and self-determination for the Indigenous population, who comprise about 40% of the total 300,000 inhabitants.

The main Kanak organizations leading the revolt are the Field Action Coordination Unit (CCAT) and the Front for the National Liberation of Socialist Kanaky (FLNKS), which was the leading organization of the revolt in the mid-1980s.

This May 2024 uprising was so massive that French President Emmanuel Macron had to interrupt his recent threats to put “NATO troops on the ground in Ukraine” to pay an emergency visit to Kanaky. With French imperialism recently ejected from Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger during Macron’s presidency, he apparently wanted to halt another loss.

Macron said on May 23 that the new voting rules would be delayed until there was calm and discussions could be held. Although his words sound like a concession, Macron also demanded the removal of the roadblocks. Even more telling: Macron brought with him another 3,000 French troops to enforce French rule of the islands.

Like all imperialist officials, Macron has no qualms about lying to look like he is offering concessions while he prepares to carry out a bloodbath. Remember that a year ago Macron called out French gendarmes and police to quell the peaceful protest of working people in France who were trying to defend their right to retirement pensions. It would be naive to think he would be less ruthless against an oppressed colonial population that challenged key ruling-class interests.

Strategic value of Kanaky

That Macron would fly there — and bring 3,000 heavily armed French troops with him — underlines the massive nature of the popular uprising and the enormous economic and strategic importance of the islands to the French ruling class.

Kanaky consists of three populated islands with a total of about 7,000 square miles of land surface, about the same size as the land area of the Hawaiian Islands and bigger than Puerto Rico. It lies in the South Pacific, about 1,000 miles east of Australia and 1,200 miles north of New Zealand — more than 10,000 miles from Paris, France. The largest island, comprising most of that territory, is mountainous, has a large lagoon and is nicknamed “The Pebble”.

Some people have described The Pebble as a block of nickel. Kanaky has the fourth largest reserve of nickel in the world, a valuable metal used to make stainless steel and to make alloys used in batteries. Some 9% of the world’s nickel is processed in Kanaky.

If Kanaky is recognized as part of France, French corporations have economic rights to another 700,000 square miles of nearby seas. According to the French economic body that issues currency for oversea possessions (ieom.fr), the sea bed has a likely presence of rare metals, cobalt and manganese, and possibly oil.

From the geopolitical point of view, possession of Kanaky provides a potential base for the French military to join the U.S. military in surrounding People’s China. The French regime, especially under Macron, has aligned with U.S. goals within NATO and could be expected to do the same in the Pacific. The goal is to guarantee a share of imperialist plunder for the French ruling class.

The just struggle of the Kanak people for self-determination presents an obstacle to this drive to plunder the world’s working class.

Behind ‘unfreezing’ the vote

For readers in the U.S. unfamiliar with Kanaky, it might be useful to consider the history of U.S. imperialism oppressing Native Hawaiians. Wealthy U.S. settlers in Hawaiʻi in the late 19th century seized the island — which was an independent kingdom recognized by many nations at the time — and the U.S. government backed up these settlers, turning the Hawaiian archipelago into a U.S. colony.

By encouraging settlement and reducing the Indigenous people to a small minority, the U.S. was able to repress Native Hawaiian rights to self-determination and integrate Hawaiʻi as a state in 1959. The U.S. Armed Forces have used Hawaiʻi as a military stepping stone across the Pacific.

After brutally repressing a popular Kanak uprising in the mid-1980s, the French government held negotiations with Kanak pro-independence organizations. They agreed in 1998 to hold referendums on independence, allegedly under peaceful conditions.

What’s not mentioned in most reports on the recent developments in Kanaky is how the French government purposely and consciously encouraged European migration to the islands. As early as the 1970s, French Prime Minister Pierre Messmer urged emigration of French citizens in order to overwhelm the Indigenous population. This policy has continued following the 1998 accords for the referendums.

The new settlers come from mainland France with a higher level of education, mastery of French and much better connections with the French bureaucracy than the Kanaks have. They have relative privileges and access to employment, and are likely to vote against independence. They are also proportionally more susceptible to racist propaganda.

In the first independence referendum in November 2018, only Kanaks and descendants of historic settlers and convicts voted, with “no” winning with 56.4% of the vote. The law provided that the Kanaks can organize two more referendums. In the next one, held in 2020, the pro-independence camp gained ground, but the “no” vote still won with 53.2% of the vote. (Regarding convicts, in the 19th century, the French Empire established a penal colony on the island, much like it did at the Cayenne penal colony in French-controlled Guyana in South America, made famous in the film “Papillon.”)

A third referendum was therefore held in 2021, in the midst of the pandemic, which disproportionately affected Kanaks. Because of the pandemic, pro-independence forces boycotted this election. The vote was overwhelmingly “no,” but was obviously illegitimate.

The new rules France is trying to impose on Kanaky would “unfreeze the votes,” according to the French government. Couched as bringing more democracy, these rules in effect allow the mostly European French settlers to vote against independence after only 10 years residence. Using these new rules would guarantee an anti-independence result.

The Kanaks said “no” to the new rules by setting up roadblocks. For anyone in the world who supports self-determination and opposes colonialism, whether settler colonialism or any other kind, the only choice is solidarity with the struggle of the Kanak people against French imperialism.

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