The Strategic “Toolbox” of the Kanak Insurrection (1984-1988)



As the movement that fights for the independence of Kanaky-New-Caledonia is currently energized by encouraging results in the first of three self-determination referendums (November 4, 2018), we remember the 1980s Kanak insurrection in this conversation recorded in our office on December 7, 2018.

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Map of Kanaky-New-Caledonia by Léopold Lambert (2016).

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: Giving a date to the beginning of an insurrection is always aproblem as it pretends that what happened earlier was somehow distinct from what followed, but if we are to accept that the 1980s Kanak insurrection started the night of November 18, 1984, could you describe what happened then?

ANTHONY TUTUGORO: November 18, 1984 is indeed commonly accepted in Caledonia as the date of the beginning of we erroneously called “the events.” When I’m with my students I tell them to stop talking about “the events,” because what are these events? A carnival? I much prefer the definition of Hamid Mokaddem [see The Funambulist 9 Islands] who speaks of “a revolutionary political sequence constituting the Kanak people as a nation.” As the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) emerges, all the pressure groups and independent political forces fighting for independence decide to engage in an active boycott, which does not simply mean not going to vote to the November 18, 1984 regional elections, but also preventing people from voting. They were rejecting the Lemoine status for the country that was being implemented. Despite appearing to give a form of emancipation to New-Caledonia, the Kanak people having already become a minority at that time, the game was rigged and they knew very well that the elections would be lost, hence the occupation of the town halls.

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. Éloi Machoro breaking the ballot box with an axe in the town hall of Canala on November 18, 1984. / Photo by Louise Takamatsu.

In Lifou (Loyauty Islands), the mayor, Édouard Wapaé, talked to the elders who absolutely wanted to vote. We have to see how this question of the boycott touches something sensitive between generations. Some of the elders went to fight in Europe during WWII and gained the right to vote for Kanak people. This is still in the relatively recent past! The elders who knew that some of their brothers had lost their lives fighting for this right did not understand that their own children were telling them not to vote. In Canala, it was a bit more radical, ballots were burned and Éloi Machoro, the Minister of Security of the Provisional Government of Kanaky, broke a ballot box with an axe in a staged spectacular action. Many other actions of the kind happened everywhere in the country. After this night, Léopold Jorédié, another leader of the FLNKS gave a speech to explain to the whole population what was being done and why.

This was not the first time that there was an insurrection in New-Caledonia, but it’s true that this particular night was the first major action of the movement constituted as a national liberation movement. All this was really new, in particular the synergy of it: there were not only political movements, but also unions, the group of Kanak women for the struggle, and several revolutionary tendencies that decide to send a strong message to the population to say “Now it’s enough!”

LL: Although many actions had happened punctually that night, the occupation of the village of Thio on the East Coast lasted much longer. Can you tell us how it happened and took form?

AT: The things I found in my researches about the relation between the independentist activists and violence is that when we look at the movement’s strategy, there is no discussion about violence being the ultimate means of national liberation. There are spontaneous situations and specific circumstances in which violence develops. But at no time is it said that violence will be a strategy to achieve the result of independence. Instead, they repeatedly talked about peaceful occupations. This is what Machoro did with his men in Thio. They had weapons but they were never used during the entire time of the occupation.

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Canala’s former town hall today. It became the Éloi Machoro cultural center when the new town hall was built. / Photo by Léopold Lambert (2018).

It was not at all a coincidence that it was the city of Thio that had to be taken. At that time it was the SLN (Société Le Nickel, a state-owned company that exploited nickel in New-Caledonia to export it and make big profits out of it). The idea of occupying the village of Thio was to stop the exploitation. In general in New-Caledonia, the villages are occupied by the descendants of colonists, the Europeans live mainly in villages or Nouméa agglomeration. Kanaks live in tribes and, in much smaller amounts in Nouméa and in villages too. The idea was to take the village and stop the activity. Even when the military police (gendarmerie) intervened — they came by helicopters — they found themselves disarmed by the Kanak activists. It is not innocent that Machoro was the Minister of Security in the Provisional Government of Kanaky! He had some military knowledge to be able to bear arm without using them and disarming other forces.

LL: What about the land that has been reclaimed there, which was one of the goals of the occupation?

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“The FLNKS at the Harare Summit” of the Non-Aligned Movement.
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“General Mobilization of the FLNKS.
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“Pons [the then French Minister of the Overseas Territories] Worsen. 15 Days of Marches in Kanaky.” (Covers of the Kanak activist publication Bwenando. Issues 55 (September 5, 1986), 69/70 (February 17, 1987), and 88/89 (September 2, 1987). / Photos by Léopold Lambert (2018).

AT: Reclaiming the land might have been a bit more symbolically violent: some activists went directly in settlers’ houses to make clear their position on the matter, but it should be noted that each time it was addressed case by case, there was not a general method for everyone. There was a moment when many people from Thio fled, crossed the Grande Terre’s chain of mountains and returned to Nouméa or the West Coast.

A few years earlier, there had been the creation of the Land Committee that had been mostly active in the north of the West Coast in Voh, Koné, Pouembout and the central chain of mountains. The method of the land committee was one that the FLNKS also used, at least in the beginning. One has to remember that the settler colonial regime had given land to freed convicts who had been deported to New Caledonia, and settlers who had moved there. And of course, they were given the best pieces of lands, in the plains where the soil is fertile, where it rains and one can recover water, etc. In contrast, we Kanak have been put in reservations. The tribe is nothing traditional, it’s a colonial construct to gather families that were not necessarily at this very place before this, when the spatial occupation was mostly based on clans. Many tribes have been placed in the bottom of valleys, where the land is least fertile. In the early 1980s, it was necessary to reclaim the land that was occupied by specific families of settlers.

People from many tribes would gather and share the tasks to build a hut on these lands. For example, members of one tribe would cut a central pole, others would bring the peripheral poles, others would come with crossties and schooners, etc. It was very organized! They would also bring some pots and pans, and improvised dishes on the spot if they did not come with pots already full. Men, women, children, elders, everyone would take a part in it. In half a day they would assemble the hut and would usually add a sign with the mention “reclaimed land” on it. Sometimes, the hut itself was strong enough to insist on the symbolic aspect. The person who lived on the farm would have to see it whenever leaving their house and would see all the people who were there to show him that “we need to talk.” The procedure was always the same: first they would send a first letter to ask to discuss, then, if there was no answer, either they would try a second time or already set up the hut, and once it would be on the land it would mean “now we are here, when are we talking?” [laughs] Some settlers would come to discuss in good faith and some others, not at all. This is reflected in departures, some people left by themselves, in other cases, there has been clashes or the hut would occasionally be burnt down. What’s remarkable with this strategy, on the contrary of the roadblocks, was that it did not just involved the young men but instead all members of the community. Symbolically it was quite powerful for the families to reappropriate space this way.

LL: You just mention road blocks. They are a very important item in the Kanak activists’ toolbox, aren’t they?

AT: Blocking, even in the cultural process, is a recurrent method. Blocking a road means “if you despise us so much that you can’t listen to what we have to tell you, then we block.” So yes, it has been used very much and it still does even today, in particular by the unions that block companies’ entrances when they want to manifest their discontent. It’s a strategy for making ourselves heard. You’re right to say that the axes to move on the Grande Terre are quite narrow, and there are almost always attempts from the military police to clear them. We often talk or write about how they would come with armed vehicles and throw tear gas, while the activists would reply with stones. But we never talk about how there are always discussions between the activists or the leaders of the committees of struggle — the FLNKS was organized in committees of struggles — and the police forces. It’s only when we can no longer discuss, that the VRBG (armored vehicles) come to clean the roadblocks, which are actually quite rudimentary: simply some pieces of wood that were cut on the side of the road or other stuff found here and there.

LL: Something I only recently learned was that the assassination of Éloi Machoro on January 11, 1985 by the military police (GIGN) happened in a context when Machoro and his men attempted to do in La Foa what they had been doing in Thio and, this way, cut the Grande Terre into two parts: the South where most settlers were, and the North were Kanak people were in great majority.

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Kanak activists blocking the bridge that links the village of Thio with the main road to Nouméa in November 1984. / Photo by Gabriel Duval.

AT: Yes, but what mostly prevented this has been the death of Yves Tual [a young French settler] the day before the assassination. After this, the French authorities put a price on Machoro’s head. They had been informed of his presence near La Foa on the West Coast there had been some leaks about the Thio activists’ moving and decided to “neutralize” him that’s the word they used. It became a matter of “national interest.” There are many stories around the assassination of Machoro. He was in a house with other activists and they were besieged by the military police forces. He wanted to negotiate and came out of the house, but him and Marcel Nonnaro were killed by the snipers. While the night of Yves Tual’s death, Nouméa was the site of violent riots from the settler population (buildings were on fire, the independentists headquarters were attacked, etc.), the following night, after learning the news about Machoro’s death, the anti-independentists in Nouméa were very happy. Some of my relatives told me that they heard people talking about “opening up the champagne.”

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The same bridge today. / Photo by Léopold Lambert (2018)

LL: Of course, the Kanak activists were not the only ones to find strategies to take control over space. After the assassination of Éloi Machoro, the state of emergency was declared and the six following months saw many raids of the military police in various tribes. But it is after the right wing came back to power in 1986 that we saw the most systematic tactics of surveillance and counterrevolutionary interventions. Can you describe for us what “nomadization” is about?

AT: It is a military strategy that consisted in penetrating the tribes under the pretense that the army would come to help the inhabitants making buildings, cultivating the fields, working the ground, and thus establishing a relation with them. It is therefore a time when the military police are in the tribes, surveilling (quadriller) them, and controlling each piece of territory in Caledonia. What more does it involve? Well in case of riot, you already have the staff on hand to arrest activists, as well as the equipment that is very easily deployable. So the nomadization is the control of the Kanak territories to prevent any revolt, any form of protest.

LL: Back to the Kanak activist toolbox, they then try something else, don’t they?

AT: Yes, many leaders of the FLNKS undertook trips to France to seek support and they meet the Larzac activists who had been fighting against the construction of a military basis in the South of France a decade earlier. Kanak activists were seduced by the theories of civil disobedience and non-violence — not that it was something new in the struggles; some of them had been practicing this in the 1970s. The most well-known moment of 1987 was the “15 Days For Kanaky” campaign all over New Caledonia. The idea was to go in particular to strategic places of Nouméa, the capital, to show that we exist and, in case of being beaten up by the police, to “turn the other cheek.”

The strategy was to seek support on the international scene to have countries supporting the independence of New Caledonia, given that by then, the country had been re-registered on the list of territories to decolonize. This is also how in 1987 the FLNKS presented to the U.N. what would be the constitution of this new state. It was also about credibility. It was important not to say “we will revolutionize society and we’ll kick out everybody!” No it’s not that, it was about creating a national state with all people who make up the country. Meanwhile, some sit-in were organized in Nouméa and elsewhere. These images went around the world thanks to an Australian TV crew and the international community was shocked to see that French police officers were beating up male and female pacific activists who were sitting on the ground in the center of Nouméa. Picnics were also organized in the southern wealthy parts of the city, in Anse Vata or the Baie des Citrons. Today it is completely banal for Kanak to go there but back then, the discrimination was so strong that it was an outrage!

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Graffiti on the wall of the headquarters of the Kanak and Exploited Worker Union (USTKE) in Nouméa. / Photo by Léopold Lambert (2018).

More generally, the FLNKS used a panel of strategies that were mobilized at specific times to try to obtain things from France: the rule was always to aim a little bigger to obtain less. These are negotiating strategies that appear very clearly in the historical sequence of the 1980s. For the sequence of non-violence for instance, if it does not necessarily succeed and it creates conflicts internally, then we stop and move on to something else. It’s true that when you get punched in the jaw with a police baton, I don’t think that you’d voluntarily return the next day for them to break the other
side of your jaws!

LL: Precisely. After the August 23, 1987 sit in — the one that was filmed by the Australian television — the two activists who are arrested and detained are Elie Poigoune and Alphonse Dianou. The former told me that it is during these two nights in detention that Dianou decided that he was done with this strategy of nonviolence. In April 1988, it’s him who will lead the occupation of the military police station (gendarmerie) in Ouvéa island that turned out terribly wrong with the 29 officer hostage situation that will ultimately end up in the massacre of 19 Kanak activists by the French army. This strategy of military police stations occupation was however used many times during the 1980s, wasn’t it?

AT: Yes. In that case, it was apparently part of a new strategy to launch simultaneous pacifist occupations on all the military police stations of the territory to surprise the police, surprise the institutions, the authorities, and oppose the regional elections (that were happening the same day than the French Presidential elections). The strategy of peaceful occupations is different from the strategy of nonviolence, that’s for sure. Even if it is not violent, in any case if you enter a police station, you can anticipate that it turns ugly, there are weapons after all. That’s what happened in Ouvéa. All the archives concur to say that the person who opened fire in the police station was a recently-arrived officer who did not necessarily know the activists who were people who would come often to the station, talk, sell fish or crab, etc. The person panicked when the official declaration of the pacifist occupation was made, and he shot on the activists. From there things went for the worst. It ought to be noted that apparently this occupation happened one day early; that’s why it ended up being the only one in the country. Following this, the French state mobilized all that it can mobilize in terms of military to absolutely find the commando that took the hostages to a cave near the tribe of Gossanah. Many accounts pretend that the FLNKS leaders do not really respond to the situation. In reality, they do. Not Tjibaou directly, but they do. It’s just that at the moment, they did not have control tools or communication with the commando who was there — there are no phones of course — they could not talk to see which strategies to adopt. When Dianou said “I will release the hostages when you’ll grant the independence of my country,” he declared this from the cave but had no way to discuss this with the Front’s leaders who were on the Grande Terre or on the other islands. And so the die was cast at this moment, especially when we see that there was no more discussion possible with the authorities, and when they sent the paratroopers, the GIGN and other special forces. It’s impressive for a small country like Caledonia to see all these helicopters over people’s heads. I think that it had a very strong deterrent effect. Ouvéa was really a show of force from the French State that they were ready to mobilize everything they needed: 19 activists were killed in the operation, including at least three executed, it was later proved. France wanted to show that any armed action was deemed to be met with a much greater force. Activists who were involved back then all have in mind the way the French TV was using a rhetoric that would picture the FLNKS as terrorists. My own very first memory was a picture shown on the news of New Caledonia cut with a machete and bleeding.

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“No matter the result, as long as there will be one Kanak alive in Kanaky, this land will never belong to you. Kanaky, for you, I would give my life.” Banner on the road to Tiendanite, Jean-Marie Tjibaou’s tribe. / Photo by Léopold Lambert (2018).

Following this episode, there were a few isolated events, but that was pretty much it. But in the end, we can say that the strategy of peaceful occupations was what led to the Matignon Accords in June 1988. After this, the FLNKS continues to exist and a new and completely different sequence starts envisioning new strategies. It consists in entering institutions that we partially created with the provincialization that begins after the signature of the Accords in 1988. Tjibaou himself paid with his life [he was assassinated by a Kanak activist from the tribe of Gossanah on May 4, 1989] to engage all the Kanak people in this new ideology: “manage our own region, manage our economy, demonstrate to the state that we are capable and that afterwards, we will be able to convince more people to join the project… in other words, vote for us! “ [laughing].