New Caledonia needs support against French neo-colonialism

By Guardian Reporter , The Guardian
Published at 04:19 PM May 23 2024
Pro-independence protests led to three days of the worst violence in the French Pacific since the 1980s
File Photo
Pro-independence protests led to three days of the worst violence in the French Pacific since the 1980s

DEADLY riots swept over the New Caledonian capital of Nouméa this week ahead of a proposed electoral reform vote in France’s lower house of parliament. The alleged purpose of the so-called reforms is to enlarge the electorate for New Caledonia’s provincial elections. But in reality, the move only entrenches French influence in its former colony and denies the indigenous population their right to self-determination.

Under the terms of the 1998 Nouméa Accord, which laid out a roadmap for greater autonomy for the island country, only New Caledonia natives and long-term residents have been eligible to vote in provincial elections and local referendums in order to preserve the balance between the indigenous Kanak population and new arrivals from mainland France. The proposed reforms threaten to upend this and are a clear example of how Paris continues to pursue a neo-colonial agenda in its so-called overseas territories.

Of course, you wouldn’t encounter any of this if you were to follow the French media. In reports from the land of cheese and wine, the violent uprisings against the proposed electoral reform are entirely the result of Azerbaijan – according to the French Minister of Interior. This country of the South Caucasus has recently had a major public spat with France over the latter’s diplomatic and military support for Azerbaijan’s neighbor and rival, Armenia. However, unlike France, Azerbaijan is not a permanent UN Security Council member with nuclear weapons and a top-ten global economy. It sounds more opportune excuse than reality.

This official line also, conveniently, fails to address the significant influence that Paris continues to wield over the territory’s political and economic systems. It also masks the fact that France’s own citizens feel shamed by this blatant neo-colonialism, with protests in Paris featuring the Kanak independence flag. We need to draw more attention to these realities and avoid being fooled by France’s diversionary tactics.

But it is not simply enough for the world to remain clear-sighted of what is really going on here. The international community needs to go a step further and provide support for New Caledonia’s quest for self-determination and to address the persistent socio-economic disparities rooted in colonial history.

The Kanak people are the indigenous inhabitants of New Caledonia and they have faced systemic discrimination and marginalization ever since the country was annexed by France in 1853. The economic benefits of the island’s rich natural resources, particularly nickel, have been largely monopolized by the French and multinational corporations.

According to Politico, this tiny island country contains around 30 percent of the world’s nickel reserves. Nickel is an essential material in making stainless steel as well as batteries for use in electric vehicles. New Caledonia should be far more prosperous than it is, yet the Kanak population continues to suffer through the lingering effects of colonialism.

The indigenous Kanaks are disproportionately affected by poverty compared to the European-descendant Caldoche community. They face higher unemployment rates and limited access to education and job opportunities. Many Kanaks live in substandard housing and face poor living conditions. There is significant income inequality, with wealth concentrated in urban areas and among non-indigenous populations. Educational attainment is also lower among the Kanak population, which contributes to ongoing economic disparities.

What cannot be denied is that the parasitic and extractionary practices of the French have fanned the flames of social tension. This is the lifeblood that surges through the veins of the independence movement on the island. The push for independence in New Caledonia is driven by a desire to rectify historical injustices and to achieve political and economic self-determination.

This is the core reason why the Kanak-led independence movement has gained momentum, particularly among younger generations who see independence as a path towards greater social and economic equality. Pinning everything on foreign interference denies the Kanak people their agency and is just another example of how a colonial mindset persists in modern-day France.  The real foreign interference in New Caledonia comes from a cynical manipulation of the rules by neo-colonial Parisians.

There is no justification for the violence we have witnessed over the past week. But we cannot ignore that the current crisis has been born out of legitimate local grievances and the only way that the underlying issues can be resolved is through a genuine and fair process toward Kanak independence. The international community has a moral imperative to step in and provide support that can ensure that New Caledonians can chart their own path towards a brighter future.  The Non-Aligned Movement in particular, pledged to stand up for small nations and counter the evils of colonialism, neo-colonialism, and racism, should make its voice heard loud and clear on this issue.

This support should involve advocating for a transparent and unbiased path to self-determination, addressing economic inequalities, and ensuring that the voices of the Kanak people are at the forefront of any political process. By supporting New Caledonia, the global community can help dismantle the remnants of colonialism and promote justice and equality. It also needs to help assuage their economic fears and concerns about stability following emancipation.

All considered, the fight for independence in New Caledonia is not merely a local issue but part of a broader struggle against the lingering effects of colonialism. It is imperative that the international community stands with New Caledonia, ensuring that its journey toward self-determination is free from external manipulation and grounded in a commitment to rectifying historical injustices.

The age of empires is over and it’s about time that French lawmakers started listening instead of endlessly deflecting blame. People’s lives are at stake here and while this might be of little concern to the chattering classes in Paris, who might be more interested in Kylian Mbappe’s impending move to Real Madrid, those of us who truly believe in the virtues of liberty, equality, and fraternity need to support the Kanak people in their battle for emancipation.