“Anger takes a long time to develop.” For the Kanak, what is happening in New Caledonia is a “recolonization” attempt by France.

The ongoing unrest in France’s South Pacific island region is “unpredictable” and “curfews and police reinforcements will not calm the anger and suffering of indigenous peoples.”

The catalyst was the law passed this week in Paris, 17,000 kilometers from the New Caledonia archipelago: On Tuesday, 351 French deputies voted in favor of amendments to the constitution of the French island territory in the South Pacific. Where 10 or more years can vote in local elections and referendums. It ignited an insurgency that had been dormant for decades and in recent days produced the worst episodes of violence in the archipelago in 30 years.

“Tensions are so old, they arise directly from New Caledonia’s colonial heritage, and the riots were so unpredictable that the current situation is not surprising,” says Evelyn Bartho, professor of sociology at the University of Pau. CNN Portugal, France, with extensive work in the archipelago. “The anger that can now be seen in the streets, in the barricades and in the clashes is long-standing and has its roots in the history and sociology of the territory.”

Since the riots began on Tuesday, five people have died, including three civilians and two police officers, and there are reports that parts of the area remained calm last night. No longer under government control. Faced with violence, the French government declared a state of emergency, imposed a mandatory curfew and announced that it would send more security forces to restore law and order in the region – with Louis Le Franc, the French Republic’s high commissioner in New Caledonia, saying the number of police officers and gendarmes would rise from 1,700 to 2,700 by the end of this Friday. declared.

The French interior minister publicly accused Azerbaijan of encouraging the independence movement, fueling tensions after flags of the former Soviet republic were seen at several protests. “It’s not a fantasy,” Gerald Dormanin said Thursday. “I regret that some of the separatists made an agreement with Azerbaijan. […] Despite attempts at intervention, France remained sovereign over its own territory. to PoliticsA French intelligence source confirmed anonymously that intelligence agencies “have been tracking Azerbaijani and Russian activities in New Caledonia for weeks, even months, […] It feeds the narrative that France is a colonial nation.

Azerbaijan vehemently denies responsibility for the riots, in another episode of diplomatic tensions between Paris and Baku, after France accused it of calling for a global boycott of the Olympics in the French capital in July.

“We can feel the frustration, tension and anger rising strongly”

The New Caledonia archipelago, located between Australia and Fiji, was conquered by the French in 1853 and in recent decades has seen tension between the indigenous population, the Kanak, who now represent 40% of the population, and the European population. By descent, they are divided into three groups: those who colonized the territory at the end of the 19th century (Caldochus), those sent to the archipelago when it was a French penal colony, and those who arrived in the territory in recent years. Currently, about 269 thousand people live in the archipelago.

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“For about 60 years, the Kanak people were subjected to forced labor and forbidden to leave after 8 p.m.,” Bartho explains, referring to the beginnings of the islands’ colonization. “The country experienced various forms of land grabbing, rape and violence, to which the Kanak people responded with several uprisings, from 1878 to the events of Ovia in 1988”, the famous hostages in a cave on the island of the same name. And “faced with the suppression of diseases and rebellions brought by the settlers”, the sociologist further highlights, “the Kanak population was reduced from 50 thousand to less than 27 thousand people between 1853 and 1920”.

Following several periods of specific violence, the Noumea Accords were signed in 1998, stating that only people living in the territory before or until that year could vote in local elections and referendums. The same deals have been awarded to three popular consultations on independence that took place between 2018 and 2021. First, 56.6% of voters voted against independence. Two years later, that number dropped to 53.2%.

In 2021, amid the Covid pandemic, some Canucks and pro-independence groups called for a boycott of the vote, given the restrictions imposed by Covid and the period of mourning for those who died of the disease. An important part of Kanak culture” – Of the total population who participated in this last poll, less than 43% voted in favor, 96.5%. Current status. “Some Canucks may have rejected independence because they saw what happened in other islands of the world that were colonies of France”, Highlights from Angela DiffleyInternational editor of the France24 channel.

After the consultations ended, says Evelyn Barthau, “a period of transition was marked by the French government taking control of the region.” In July 2023, the archipelago of the French presidency resulted in another disappointment. Part of the population expected it to be an opportunity to look back on colonial abuses and ask for forgiveness, but instead, Emmanuel Macron reaffirmed to loyalists that New Caledonia chose to remain French.

Bartho was in Noumea when this visit took place. “We could feel the frustration, tension and anger rising strongly. And the Electoral Reform Project [aprovado esta semana em Paris] It was, in a sense, an excuse and a trigger for a general mobilization of the Ghanaians, libertarians and a large section of those who felt closer to home, which has degenerated into urban riots in recent days. Any act of violence is reprehensible, but I believe it is important to understand this violence today because curfews and police reinforcements will not quell anger and suffering.

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“Talking about interference is a way to avoid facing the real causes of anger.”

Due to its geographical location, the New Caledonia archipelago is of strategic importance to France. It is also important because of nickel, a metal widely used in the production of stainless steel, coins and rechargeable batteries in electric cars. Much of New Caledonia’s wealth comes from there, with nearly 30% of the world’s nickel reserves concentrated in the archipelago.

But the mining industry is in crisis and, contrary to expectations, nickel production in New Caledonia is falling, leading investors to abandon the archipelago, given the race for the vital raw material pitting the West against China. .

The crisis is due to restrictions imposed by local authorities, but above all to high energy costs, rising production costs, which have affected the price of the commodity – making it less profitable than nickel mined in Indonesia and other Asian competitors. . This, however, kept the archipelago dependent on France for subsidies. “The geostrategic and nickel-related challenges are undoubtedly a source of desire and concern for the French government, which may explain the tension,” Bartho opines. “But talking about interference by Azerbaijan or China, proven or not, is a way to avoid facing the real causes of anger, such as the imposition of a unilateral calendar by the French government without taking into account local actors and their context, as well as social inequalities and injustices in the region.”

The sociologist says these disparities begin with the division between the southern province, the city of Noumea, the capital of the riots, and the northern province and the rest of the islands, which are economically less and more backward. In addition, “access to basic needs is very difficult, food prices are, for example, 78% higher in New Caledonia than in mainland France, and the gap between rich and poor is very wide.”

These disparities are particularly felt among the tribal population. “70% of the people living in poverty in this area belong to the Kanak community, 70% of the youth are school dropouts, and 8% have a two-year higher education diploma. 50% European” – a number that includes so-called caldoches and “metropolitans.” During fieldwork led by a French sociologist with young Canucks in New Caledonia, “many said they saw mainland French people being offered jobs that fit their merits, creating great frustration and a sense of injustice,” he says. Bartho. “There are also issues of discrimination and stigmatization, with the Kanak often feeling inferior in the educational, professional and political spheres, as well as in their interactions with European society.”

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Almost attacked

Asked what awaits the archipelago in light of this week’s events, and what action France may or may not take after measures such as banning TikTok on the islands, Evelyne Barthou begins by predicting that she is not a diplomat but will happen there. There is no solution without addressing the underlying political and social issues plaguing New Caledonia. Among these problems, the sociologist cites, in addition to the lack of recognition and consideration especially for the Kanak people, “the inability to manage a territory 17 thousand kilometers from Paris and the disparities, inequality and discrimination that are very strong in the territory.” .

“These riots occurred at two levels: at the political level, with the French government and local political actors, and at the civil society level. New Caledonia, like mainland France, experiences a great deal of political mistrust among young people in relation to the French and New Caledonian governments and other political actors in society”, according to the University of Pau. Sociologist exemplifies.

Macron’s government says it is in talks with local politicians, but only to restore order, and at a time when much of the violence is attributed to “young people labeled idle or barbaric,” the reality is stark here. Complicated. “The violence in the streets of New Caledonia at this time is definitely the work of some youths, not only that, but also justified by a section of militants who claim the freedom to use qualified and defensive violence. The population, especially the population, raises questions taking into account some images and testimonies of youths who have been harassed by militants,” says the expert.

“Many young people, especially the Kanak, want to ‘move on’ away from the tradition of the past, but not at any cost. They want reconciliation and forgiveness from the French government, but also integration and recognition. Anyone familiar with civil society in New Caledonia, the pro-independence movement or residents of New Caledonia for decolonization It is almost offensive to think that foreign governments are required to fight what they see as the attempt. France must reconcile itself to its new colonial status, re-accept its ‘impartiality’ and return to a horizontal debate with politicians and civil society to support New Caledonia’s future.

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