Nouméa in the French territory of New Caledonia has emerged partially destroyed after two weeks of rioting against constitutional change. The French state claims to be expanding voting rights to all — but Kanak populations see it as a colonial power grab.

A protest organized by the pro-independence coalition CCAT on May 13, 2024. (Theo Rouby / AFP via Getty Images)

In southern New Caledonia, the city of Nouméa and its suburbs were ablaze for almost two weeks in May. Caught up in riots reportedly involving nearly five thousand young Kanak independence activists, some two hundred buildings were burned down, mostly consisting of stores and factories, as well as public facilities, houses, schools, and libraries. In response, armed self-defense groups and militias of Europeans formed to protect their neighborhoods, erecting more than a hundred barricades throughout the city. At least seven people died, including four Kanak.

Repeating the mistakes of a repressive colonial policy on the south Pacific archipelago, the French government prioritized not dialogue but restoring order. It declared a state of emergency in New Caledonia from May 16 to 27, placed most of the leaders of the revolt under house arrest, and sent in the military to quell the rioters. This state of insurrection is part of a long colonial history marked by divisions between the indigenous Kanak population, who demand independence, and the “caldoches,” Europeans from several waves of settlement, who oppose it.

Colonial History

After taking possession of the archipelago in 1848, France asserted its dominance first by way of penal colonies, then through an at first quite unsuccessful attempt at settler colonialism. The colonial authorities believed that colonial wars and epidemics would lead to the inevitable disappearance of the indigenous Kanak people. However, despite a significant demographic decline up to the 1920s, the Kanak people have staged several major uprisings — in 1878, 1917, 1984, and again today.

Each time, these uprisings were brutally suppressed by the French state. In many ways, France’s policy in New Caledonia was akin to the one it pursued in Algeria: expropriation of Kanak lands for settlers, brutal repression of any rebellion, and the establishment of an indigénat regime. This meant a set of laws, lasting until 1946, that deprived the Kanaks of citizenship, prohibited them from circulating outside of reservations, and imposed forced labor.

While after World War II Kanaks gained access to citizenship, this period also saw growing tensions between communities — and increasing political polarization. This was a consequence of the nickel boom and the primarily European migration organized by the French state. From 1984 to 1988 — a period euphemistically termed “the Events” — the country experienced a surge of violence between the Kanak people and the French government and settlers, which led to the bloody Ouvéa hostage crisis, during which nineteen independence activists and two soldiers were killed. However, at the end of this period of unrest, a compromise seemed to have been reached with the signing of the Matignon-Oudinot Accords, which opened the way for a gradual and negotiated decolonization process. In 1998, the Nouméa Accord continued this momentum, notably by setting a path toward a self-determination referendum.

One major feature of the path to decolonization stipulated in 1998 was that it incorporated settlers and other immigrant populations as part of the process.

One major feature of this path to decolonization was that it incorporated settlers and other immigrant populations as part of the process. This was achieved through the establishment of a special electoral body: while claiming their rights to self-determination as indigenous peoples, the Kanak independence activists accepted sharing this right with those designated as “victims of history,” namely the descendants of settlers and convicts, as well as all the populations that arrived during various waves of migration, not only from France but also from other Pacific islands or Asia.

Thus, two separate electoral bodies were established alongside the general electoral roll: one restricted the right to vote in elections for New Caledonian institutions to individuals who had settled at least ten years before the Nouméa Accord, while the other imposed even more restrictive criteria for referendums. This de facto excluded all those who arrived thereafter, mostly from mainland France.

This major compromise integrated the colonial past into the institutionalized decolonization process and represented an outstretched hand from the Kanak to other communities. It was one of the pillars of the civil peace that had reigned among the different communities of New Caledonia since 1988. It also allowed the inclusion of all other long-established communities within a unique Caledonian citizenship. This particularly meant immigrant workers from other former colonies of the Pacific and Asia, who had throughout history come to work on plantations or in nickel mines, and added to this territory’s multiethnic mosaic. Today, of the archipelago’s 270,000 inhabitants, 40 percent are Kanak, 29 percent are European, and the remaining 30 percent come from the Wallis and Futuna Islands, French Polynesia, Vanuatu, Indonesia, Vietnam, or China.

This “exception” to republican universalism, which restricted a theoretically universal right, was enshrined in the constitution. Its legality was recognized in 2005 by the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that it did not infringe upon the requirements of universal suffrage, given the transitional arrangements put in place. But then the French state unilaterally decided on the “unfreezing” of this electoral body, in the name of republican universalism.

The “Electoral Body”

It was after the most recent referendum on the archipelago’s status in 2021 that the French state began to question the so-called “frozen electoral body.”

As stipulated by the Nouméa Accord, three referendums were held in 2018, 2020, and 2021, which all favored remaining within the French state, but by small margins. During the first one in 2018, the percentage in favor of independence was 43.3 percent, but the second referendum in 2020 showed a strengthening of this camp (46.7 percent for independence). However, the 2021 vote, held amidst the COVID-19 crisis, was hastily organized by the French state while the pro-independence groups called for it to be postponed. Facing the state’s obstinacy, they called for a boycott. The resulting 96.5 percent vote to stay in France, on a dismal turnout, did not reflect the will to continue being part of the French state, as Emmanuel Macron claimed, but rather the nonsense of a referendum held without the Kanak population. The French government, however, was quick to ratify the results of this third referendum, leaving the pro-independence movement stunned.

For the past three years, the French state has denigrated the independence movement, and despite numerous warnings, the Macron government has reversed the freeze on the electoral roll in the name of republican universalism. This reversal was implemented through a constitutional amendment, allowing currently excluded individuals to participate in elections. Although this “unfreezing” of the electoral roll currently only affects local elections, and not a potential new independence ballot, it poses unacceptable problems for the Kanak people.

Little could be more ironic than an anti-independence figure from New Caledonia–Kanaky flirting with far-right ideas, appointed in mainland France to handle citizenship issues.

The new additions represent around 20 percent of the voting population. Most have arrived from mainland France, and strongly oppose independence. This would put the Kanak people in a minority in their own country, considerably altering the local political balance and making the independence project unreachable. Unfreezing the voter list means unraveling the whole structure upon which the Nouméa Accord is based.

Still, the pro-independence camp is not totally opposed to this process — and was even ready to discuss it. What it objects to above all is the French government’s heavy-handed approach, and its compromise with the anti-independence camp.

Anti-Independence Movement

Since the failure of the 2021 referendum, which marked the end of the Nouméa Accord process and the opening of negotiations to seek a new agreement, the pro-independence movement has been marginalized by Paris. The French state departed from its outward neutrality by aligning itself with the most vehement anti-independence forces, who are closer to the far right.

As a sign of the French government’s compromise, the loyalist leader Sonia Backès, whose positions are not far from the populism and racism of Donald Trump, was chosen by Macron to occupy the no less symbolic position of French Secretary of State for Citizenship. Little could be more ironic than an anti-independence figure from New Caledonia–Kanaky flirting with far-right ideas, appointed in mainland France to handle citizenship issues, and advocating for racist legislation such as the highly controversial law banning the wearing of the abaya (a type of Muslim robe) in schools.

In recent months, the anti-independence camp has stepped up its provocative statements, harshening a divide between Kanak and non-Kanak, which had largely diminished since the 2000s. For example, at a time when riots and their repression are raging, the MP Nicolas Metzdorf continues to present himself in French media as the victim of anti-white racism. The omnipresence of such rhetoric in New Caledonia–Kanaky reveals a blindness to the persistence of the colonial question and the pervasiveness of racism in Caledonian society. The French government and the anti-independence factions have thus aligned around the themes of universal republicanism — and the denial that racial and colonial conflicts even exist.

Left-wing groups in the French National Assembly firmly opposed the government’s proposal to change voting law.

As a result, the New Caledonian case has also been caught up in the left right–far right divisions in the French National Assembly, as well as the tensions surrounding colonial issues in recent years. The minister of the interior and overseas territories, Gérald Darmanin, who insisted on the urgency of this reform, ignored warnings from the left-wing parliamentary groups and instead took the opportunity to attack his political opponents. Ahead of the vote by MPs, he strongly confronted the members of the New Ecological and Social Popular Union (NUPES), who firmly opposed the government’s proposal.

Hence, despite the strong opposition of the Kanak people to this law, senators and MPs in Paris voted largely in favor. Ignoring the complexity of colonial history and the reasons for this legal exceptionalism, justified by the decolonization process, and downplaying the risks it could entail, they approved the unfreezing of the electoral roll, sparking unrest in New Caledonia–Kanaky.

Riots Flare Up

For several months, tensions between the two camps had been increasing. Last November, in response to the proposed law presented by the French state, a Coordination Cell for Field Actions (CCAT) was created by pro-independence political organizations and trade unions. Aimed at raising awareness about the electoral roll issue, it organized around twenty demonstrations, all of which were peaceful. During the most recent one on Wednesday, May 8, thousands of Kanak from across the island marched peacefully through the affluent southern districts of Nouméa, predominantly inhabited by Europeans. Carrying thousands of flags, they chanted as they passed, “This is Kanaky; this is our home.” The atmosphere was cheerful and family-friendly. On the contrary, in recent months pro-French loyalists had intensified their provocations. For instance, in March, Backès emphatically declared that they were ready to “make a mess of things.”

As the law approached a vote in the National Assembly in Paris, barricades were erected across the island by CCAT groups, blocking major roads. With the passing of the bill, the situation flared up in Nouméa. Large commercial establishments — symbolically significant as they belong to wealthy Caldoche families enriched in New Caledonia–Kanaky — were the first to burn. The fires and looting then spread to commercial activities in general, and many public buildings. Entire neighborhoods have been devastated. According to official figures, these acts were committed by four to five thousand Kanak, who, in official discourse, are depicted as young delinquents manipulated not only by pro-independence leaders but also by external forces like Azerbaijan, China, or even Russia. The CCAT has even been labeled a mafia organization by Interior Minister Darmanin.

At the request of anti-independence factions, Paris declared a state of emergency and dispatched thousands of gendarmes and soldiers to suppress the Kanak uprising. Within a few days, the terrified European populations formed barricades, manned by self-defense groups and even armed militias. Far from calming the situation, the anti-independence leaders fanned the flames, urging residents to take the initiative to protect their neighborhoods.

One of the white militiamen killed a nineteen-year-old Kanak student, Jybril.

Five political parties on either side of the independence divide called for peace, and white flags were gradually raised on the European barricades. But no one is fooled: in New Caledonia, the population is heavily armed, with likely more than 100,000 firearms for the 270,000 inhabitants — not only because hunting is deeply rooted here, but also because many Caledonians built up considerable arms stocks in anticipation of post-referendum strife. It was one of these white militiamen who killed a nineteen-year-old Kanak student, Jybril.

Alongside the confrontations, customary gifts were exchanged at some barricades and solidarity also emerged in ethnically diverse neighborhoods, such as meal distributions. But the divide between Kanak and non-Kanak, which had eased in the years following the Nouméa Accords, has again been heightened. This materializes geographically in the opposition between the more Oceanian and underprivileged urban areas of the north, which are now completely devastated, and the extremely privileged and white neighborhoods of the south of the peninsula where Europeans barricaded themselves, which have remained intact.

New Independence Leadership

Many people today are denouncing the political incompetence of both the anti-independentists and the pro-independence parties who have cut themselves off from Kanak youth. In fact, many of the young Kanak rioters have never experienced the events of the 1980s, and no longer recognize themselves in the pro-independence or customary Kanak authorities.

Often unqualified and unemployed, they are disparaged by the political authorities and their elders alike, who tend to regard them as delinquents. The riots partly fuel this discourse: out-of-control rioters who looted the alcohol cellars of supermarkets, and who became heavily intoxicated, no longer listened to their elders and committed acts of extreme violence. But the riots also reveal the emergence of a new generation of pro-independence leaders who are closer to these young people.

In fact, the anger of these young people, fueled by the colonial disorder of alcoholism, is an expression of their dispossession and yearning for social justice. The CCAT was able to mobilize these energies, through an activist approach that was lacking in the traditional pro-independence movement. This was demonstrated in the months leading up to the riots, punctuated by demonstrations in which CCAT proved its ability to organize and mobilize Kanak youth.

True to its habit of denigrating its opponents as terrorists or thugs, the French state (following in the footsteps of the anti-independence movement) has sought to delegitimize and deny political status to both the CCAT and the youth. This is all done in the supposed interest of reestablishing “republican order.” As of June 1, 725 Kanak have already been arrested, and they are now being prosecuted in summary trials. Macron’s brief visit on May 23, in an attempt to calm the situation, seems to have been to no effect. He failed to make any clear statements on unfreezing or maintaining the electoral body.

Behind the issue of voter rolls, or even independence, the explosive issue here is the profound inequalities that structure New Caledonia–Kanaky along racial lines.

Already on May 18, CCAT activists had raised a black flag, marking the beginning of mourning for the killed young Kanak — a mourning that is central to Oceanian social practices. But they also call for continued pressure, with every independentist barricade taken down by the forces of law and order immediately reerected. The state’s brutal repressive policy makes the possibility of calming the situation all the more precarious.

Behind the issue of voter rolls, or even independence, the explosive issue here is the profound inequalities that structure New Caledonia–Kanaky along racial lines. These inequalities are the result of a colonial situation, which the French government’s repressive and arrogant response only hardens. These divides have been intensified by an unprecedented economic crisis in recent times. In particular, the drop in nickel prices and competition from Indonesia in this field has considerably weakened the territory, which relies on nickel for almost all its exports as well as the jobs of one-quarter of the population. France’s attempts to regain control of nickel policy is itself a key issue for Kanak sovereignty.

In the longer run, answering this territory’s problems will take a lot more than just calls to order, or even more referendums. It’s about overcoming the legacy of colonial injustice that continues to shape the future of Kanak youth.


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