REPORTAGE FROM NEW CALEDONIA: We want a fair distribution of wealth, let Macron recognize the legitimacy of the Kanaks

REPORTAGE FROM NEW CALEDONIA : We want a fair distribution of wealth, let Macron recognize the legitimacy of the Kanaks
# 25 May 2024 14:49 (UTC +04:00)

British newspaper The Guardian covers New Caledonia's aspirations for independence from France.

APA presents the article:

“I don’t know why our fate is being discussed by people who don’t even live here.”

The 52-year-old Indigenous Kanak – who gave his name as Mike – spoke from a roadblock just north of New Caledonia’s capital, in the hours before France’s president arrived in the Pacific territory that has been paralysed by violent protests.

The demonstrations began on 13 May sparked by voting reforms proposed by the French parliament. Looting, arson and clashes have left seven dead, hundreds injured and widespread damage. The unrest comes amid underlying concerns over inequality and longstanding efforts in New Caledonia to secure independence.

The voice of local Kanaks “is not being listened to”, Mike said.

Macron’s rushed visit was, even in the words of his own advisers, “double or quits … a bet”.

But while he sought meetings across the political divide and acknowledged that inequalities had widened, his language, too, was revealing.

“The return of republican order,” he said pointedly, “is the priority.”

He left New Caledonia after 18 hours on the ground, promising that the reforms that would give voting rights to tens of thousands of non-Indigenous residents would not be pushed through by force, but the situation would be reviewed again within a month.

On the roadblocks, protesters say a delay is not enough, and that the reforms should be withdrawn.

“The statements of president Macron are disappointing,” said a 51-year-old Kanak on Friday, from a roadblock.

“We are exactly at the same point. He continues to let the situation deteriorate without making a strong gesture to calm things down.”

“The solution won’t come from the state, it will come from the Caledonians,” activist Jean-Pierre Xowie, a member of pro-independence FLNKS, told French television from New Caledonia ahead of the presidential visit.

Macron said security forces would remain as long as necessary. But FLNKS spokesperson Jimmy Naouna insisted the presence of French security forces – more than 3,000 are now on the ground, mostly in and around Noumea – was inflaming the situation.

“You can’t keep sending in troops just to quell the protests, because that is just going to lead to more protests,” he told the ABC’s Pacific Beat.

“By deploying the army, what are we doing here? This is not a war-torn country. We are not terrorists, as they say” said Joseph, an activist posted at a checkpoint in Dumbéa, north of Nouméa.

Naouna said New Caledonia’s current conflagration was a “political situation so there needs to be a political solution”.

But on the barricades that have shot up around the territory, blocking major roads and infrastructure, activists make clear that there are economic and social aspects to these protests too; anger at the state among Kanaks is not confined to the voting reform issue.

Young people say ‘they are ready to die’

Lélé, a 41-year-old activist, unaffiliated with a political party, is extremely active on social media, showing the world what is happening in New Caledonia.

“The Kanak are not being recognised for their true worth, they want a fair redistribution of wealth. What we ask of Macron is to recognise the legitimacy of the Kanak,” said Lélé.

While many Kanak do not condone the recent violence, just as many understand the anger of disillusioned youth.

“We hear young people saying they are ready to die at the checkpoints … That shows how deeply they are affected in their dignity,” said Djamil, who is married to a Kanak woman and sympathises with the independence movement.

“Macron is stuck in his opinions. He hasn’t really taken the true measure of what is happening … He made a big mistake by letting the country get bogged down.”

At immediate issue for France’s president was the proposed electoral reform bill, but the island territory is marked by deep disparities; the poverty rate among indigenous Kanaks, the largest community, is 32.5%, compared to 9% among non-Kanaks, according to the 2019 census.

Those disparities are even clearer within education and employment statistics. Only 8% of Kanaks hold a university degree and 46% hold no high school diploma. Meanwhile, 54% people of European background are university educated, with that proportion falling to 24% among people of mixed-heritage, the 2019 census shows.

Apparently referring to past efforts at widening opportunity, Macron said on Thursday that “rebalancing has not reduced economic and social inequalities, they have even grown”.

The broader impasse remains New Caledonia’s contested independence process.

Referendums between 2018 and 2021 saw a majority of voters choose to have New Caledonia remain part of France, instead of backing independence. The pro-independence movement rejected the results of the last referendum, held in 2021, which they had boycotted on the grounds that it was held at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. The movement had called on Kanaks not to participate in the vote, arguing that Covid had made pro-independence campaigning impossible, as entire villages observed customary mourning rites.

The three referendums were held under the Noumea accord struck with France in 1998, and the third referendum, in 2021, arguably brought that process to its conclusion. A previous referendum on independence, in 1987, had also failed.

Under the 1998 accord, new arrivals to New Caledonia were barred from enrolling to vote, in order to maximise Kanaks’ voting power. With the referendums concluded, the French government has moved to finally grant the vote to overseas-born, long-term residents voting rights.

Still, many Kanak people in New Caledonia continue to push for independence.

“Macron is welcome, but he is not our president,” said Axel, 21, who defines himself as a child of Kanaky, the name given to New Caledonia by the independence activists.

Protesters will finish the fight of 30 years ago, said Axel, referring to a period of violent unrest in the territory.

“Those who respect the Kanak people can live in peace with us,” the 51-year-old Kanak protester said on Friday.

“As long as there is no independence, there will be no security.”

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