Kanaky-New Caledonia: A Referendum Against French Settler Colonialism



Text translated from French by Maxwell Donnewald. Photo above by Ingrid Chanene for the Union Syndicale des Travailleurs Kanak et des Exploités (USTKE).

On November 4, 2018, a referendum of great importance will take place in Kanaky-New Caledonia (KNC). It will begin a process of decolonization anticipated by the Matignon Agreements signed on June 26, 1988. The referendum focuses on KNC’s access to total sovereignty — a total sovereignty to decide on either total independence or a policy of partnership with other states.

The Matignon Agreements were a product of what are officially known as “Les Événements” (“The Events”) between 1984 and 1988; four years of armed struggle by the indigenous Kanak people against the French state for the recognition of their rights, a civil war in fact — though this struggle has been ongoing since the first day of the settlement colony in 1853.

If the struggle is essentially between the Kanak and the French State, the referendum raises the issue of a “common destiny” that equally concerns all the other communities of the island, which are neither European nor Kanak. The majority of the people who constitute these other communities are from Oceania and Asia, though some are also the descendants of Algerian political prisoners deported to the island between 1864 and 1921. Though the Europeans were brought in by a political logic of colonial settlement, the origins of these other communities are quite different. Some have lived on the island for three generations, sharing a common Oceanian value system with the Kanaks. These communities will constitute a crucial electoral group in the November referendum. Their vote could potentially decide the result.

I belong to one of these other communities: I am a Niaouli, a person of Javanese descent, born in KNC. Some say this term refers to the capacity for resistance and adaptation of the Javanese people, similar to that of the niaouli tree, which is endemic to and emblematic of KNC. I grew up primarily within the country’s Indonesian community. Nearly 20,000 Javanese people came to work in KNC between 1896 and 1949, around 15,000 of whom eventually returned to Java. In the 1996 census, the Javanese population had officially risen to nearly 5,000 people (2.5% of the territory’s total population). Brought in originally as “coolies,” they made their way into trades like sharecropping, farming, and livestock rearing, as well as industrial vocations like automotive repair and transportation. More recently, Niaouli people have entered certain service sectors like public administration, education, and healthcare.

I was born to a second generation immigrant — though my father came directly from Indonesia as an adult, on my mother’s side, it was my grandfather who immigrated, coming to KNC to work in the nickel mines. It is said of us that we are well integrated, modest, and hard working. But the past is never discussed; in order to integrate it has to be forgotten. Yet I grew up with a sense of being firstly Indonesian, then New Caledonian, and lastly French. The schools, institutions, military presence, and Champs-Elysées, the Michel Drucker television programs were all French. My food, religious ceremonies, and home life were Indonesian. And everything outside of that was New Caledonian, with everything that implied: my closest two childhood friends were Kanak and Malagasy, and after one of my parents remarried, I had French-Indonesian half-brothers and sisters. My father had a house in Vallée du Tir, the Kanak neighborhood of Nouméa, the capital city. I left the island for France when I was 14 years old, and even though I have not returned, I, like many, consider only one place to be my native land: Kanaky-New Caledonia.

The first Javanese immigrants left Indonesia when it was still under Dutch rule, and any “submissiveness” they may have exhibited was actually a habitus produced by colonialism. Most were peasants hoping to escape poverty. In 1965, 20 years after gaining independence, Indonesia bore witness to a violent purge of about 500,000 people accused of being communists or being affiliated with one in the lead up to the dictatorship of Suharto, during which “silence was golden” under threat of mysterious disappearance. To speak about or express one’s suffering or opinions in the generation before my own was synonymous with violent repression. Though a culture of silence and self-effacement dominates even among those who immigrated long ago, there have been growing demands among Indonesians for justice and an official recognition of the massacre. And despite the neoliberal politics established under the Suharto regime, with their attendant individualist attitudes, the traditional sharing economy has managed to survive through the practice of Islam. In the absence of politics, social cohesion is maintained by religion. As a result, rather than disappearing, the notion of sharing has become even more widespread.

A little historical reminder: in 1955, at the Bandung conference the decolonized countries of the Third World defiantly stood apart from the international community. Not wanting to integrate their policies with either of the two opposed blocks led by the United States and the USSR, these countries chose a stance of non-alignment. Indonesia was at the forefront of this decolonial thought, a byproduct of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Tricontinental Congress in Cuba. We share a common past with the Kanak people; we share a common Oceanian and Micronesian culture. Though I continue to live in France, the images that nourish my work as an artist come from my years growing up during the Kanak struggle.

For me, identity is a matter of invention, and not an injunction to stick to an imposed model. To create something of our own, I see it falls within the realm of sovereignty, when we are born in a country which is not the original home of our parents or which has been colonized. Because it forces us to assimilate to the dominant scheme, colonialism disturbs our ability to construct a sovereign identity. A politics of settler colonialism will instill many with a fear of losing their native land, and they will want to vote against any proposals of sovereignty that will lead to independence. Yet our values and way of life are rooted in the Oceanian culture; we don’t live by a European schema. It would be constructive to imagine a proposal for sovereignty together, meaning all the different communities of KNC, and to reflect on what unites us rather than what divides us. This work could extend to the other overseas French territories, to reflect together on what made us who we are — we, who have gone from the Code de l’indigénat, colonialism, and slavery to the status of “Français des territoires d’outre-mer” (“French from the oversea territories”).

Recent polls from earlier this year indicate a probable “No” majority on the referendum. The Matignon Agreements allow for three referendums, so if “No” prevails, another one will be held. A mandatory time lapse of 30 years between the Agreements and the three referendums was designed by the different political parties to prepare the communities of KNC to reflect on their common destiny. One should note that, though this is a cause for debate among those of us directly affected by the referendum, hardly a word is said about it in France — this, despite the work of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, an alliance of Melanesian countries formed in 1986, which came up with a proposal in agreement with Oceanian culture that takes territorial particularities into account. While we question our sense of belonging to the nation of France, the French State, as the principal protagonist, does not question its right to impose this belonging.

It should be noted that the French State maintains a specific relationship with its overseas territories. The politics as they are carried out in these territories often directly contradict with the discourse on the mainland. Such is the case in Mayotte, a territory which became part of France by referendum, and which has a Muslim-majority population. Its Muslim identity is systematically presented as exogenous to French culture, or at the very least as illegitimate and problematic. So, by this logic, will French citizenship be measured differently depending on the region?

When I first arrived in mainland France, I personally experienced this paradox: I was a stranger in my own country. I found in the French banlieues a similar situation to the one I’d left behind in KNC. On June 28, 2018, during the “Assises des Outre-mer,” French President Emmanuel Macron spoke of “the Archipelago of France.” France, an archipelagic nation? Since the administrative region encompassing the Paris metropolis is called “Île-de-France,” and that it includes a metaphoric archipelago of banlieues, why not the Archipelago of France? Is this paradigm of the archipelago enough to give us full and equal citizenship? The referendum in KNC, despite being a territorialized event, has the capacity to reveal a global French policy also applied in the banlieues.