The Kanaky-New Caledonia revolt and imperialism in the Pacific

Riots in Kanaky-New Caledonia are a response to France’s attempts to rule out any hope of independence for the Indigenous people, writes Paddy Gibson

On 13 May, the city of Noumea, capital of Kanaky-New Caledonia, exploded in protest and rioting.

This small island nation, just 1300 kilometres off the coast of Australia, was colonised by France in 1853 and remains a French colony to this day.

The Indigenous people, the Kanak, have resisted colonisation since the initial French invasion and are fiercely committed to the struggle for independence.

Kanak youth are leading action on the street, with some support from other Pasifika youth and supporters of independence. Rioters have blocked major infrastructure, torched government buildings and businesses and looted stores.

Despite a recent de-escalation, roadblocks and clashes with police and armed settlers continued as Solidarity went to press.

More than 3000 paramilitary police, along with armoured vehicles and army helicopters, have been deployed from France to put down the uprising. Nine people have been killed, mostly Kanak murdered by police and settler militia.

Kanak make up about 40 per cent of the population of Kanaky-New Caledonia and face intense discrimination. A big majority live below the poverty line, unemployment rates are pushing 40 per cent and 90 per cent of the prisoners in Noumea’s prison are Kanak.

The rioting was triggered by the belligerent actions of French President Emmanuel Macron, who on 13 May pushed a new electoral law through the French parliament that would enfranchise 25,000 mostly French settlers in local elections.

This change would have big implications for the future political status of Kanaky-New Caledonia and was strongly opposed by the independence movement.

One month before the uprising, more than 30,000 people demonstrated in Noumea against the electoral law—an extraordinary turn out in a country of just 270,000 people.

On 22 May, Macron flew into Noumea and promised to delay implementation of the law until 30 June.

It has now been suspended indefinitely, after Macron dissolved the French national assembly on 10 June following a devastating defeat for his coalition in the European parliamentary elections.

But with the far right on the rise in France, there is little hope for change in the dynamics that drove both the push for the new law and the Kanak uprising.

Kanak youth face a bleak future of dire economic conditions, climate chaos and no road to independence offered within the formal political system.

A long-negotiated process that began with accords between the French state and an insurgent independence movement in 1988 offered hope for many years. But it is now over, after the failure of a final referendum on independence in 2021—a vote widely boycotted by the movement after France refused to postpone it in the midst of the COVID crisis.

The determination of the French state to dominate Kanaky is driven by a ruthless commitment to French imperialism.

Along with exploiting the wealth of Kanaky—primarily its massive nickel deposits—France’s position in the Pacific gives the nuclear armed state more than seven million square kilometres of exclusive economic zone and a base for its armed forces.

France’s colonial rule is also backed by Australia, an imperialist power in the region that is keen to ensure its ally keeps a strong foothold, as part of a Western bloc against rising Chinese power.

Kanak resistance

New Caledonia was initially set up as a penal colony by France in 1853. Settlers and capitalists began arriving to exploit the natural resources, waging a genocidal war of dispossession against Kanak people, with massacres and disease killing more than 70 per cent of the population.

A major uprising in 1871 saw 3000 Kanak slaughtered. A further rebellion in 1917 was also drowned in blood.

Kanak were forced off the most fertile lands and herded into reserves. They could not leave these reserves without permission until after the Second World War and could not vote until the 1950s.

The stirrings of a renewed independence movement began in the late 1960s, with students returning from Paris, inspired by the famous student-led revolt and mass strikes of May 1968.

The rise of this new movement coincided with serious industrialisation off the back of a boom in the nickel industry. By 1971, New Caledonia was the second largest nickel producer in the world.

The new radical movement was infused with socialist politics and helped precipitate the development of a multi-racial unionism, committed to independence.

The radical journal Kanak Awakening wrote in 1971, “We firmly believe that the theft of Kanak lands and the misery of workers represent two faces of a single reality—‘tribes factories, united front’ is our slogan.”

In response to the independence movement, the French state began encouraging French nationals to settle in New Caledonia. French Premier Pierre Messmer penned a circular in 1972 that said: “The French presence in Caledonia can only be threatened, barring world war, by a nationalist demand from the indigenous populations.

“Massive immigration of French citizens should make it possible to avoid this danger, by maintaining or improving the numerical ratio of communities.”

This history helps to explain why the question of voting rights for new settlers remains so vexed to this day.

An escalation of the independence struggle in the 1980s came in the form of land occupations and, in response to repression, armed resistance across rural areas.

From 1984-1988 there were a series of violent clashes, including massacres of Kanaks by settler militia and police, and assassinations of independence leaders, that were ended only by the negotiation of accords promising a referendum on independence.

These negotiations continued through the 1990s, culminating in the Noumea Accords in 1998. This agreement created a National Congress for New Caledonia and regional governance structures, along with a Kanak customary senate which must be consulted on Kanak issues.

But France retained “sovereign powers”, including control over justice and the courts, public order and policing, finance and currency, defence and most aspects of foreign relations.

Crucially, the Noumea Accords committed France to holding three referendums in New Caledonia on the question of independence.

The first, in 2018, saw 43 per cent vote to break from France. The second saw that vote increase to 47 per cent—just 5000 votes shy of victory for the independence movement.

The rising momentum behind the independence movement came as the campaign successfully reached out to other Pasifika and migrant communities. Historically, many had feared a loss of rights that they associated with French citizenship.

But especially in working-class communities, independence was coming to be associated with a process of more fundamental economic and political change.

The third referendum was carried out in 2021, in the midst of a COVID wave that was ravaging Kanak communities. France refused to postpone the vote, so it was boycotted by the independence movement, which refused to accept the legitimacy of the resulting defeat.

French imperialism

Over the period of these referendums, France was redoubling its commitment to being a serious regional player in the Pacific.

In response to the rise of Chinese power, Macron worked with Australian PM Scott Morrison to announce a “France—India—Australia Axis” in 2018. This involved signing multi-billion dollar contracts for French corporations to build submarines for Australia and warplanes for India.

Macron had his nose put out of joint when Morrison cancelled this contract and announced the new AUKUS alliance and contracts for US and UK-made nuclear submarines in 2021.

But the Australian ruling class has worked hard to ensure its alliance with France weathered this storm. The Albanese government has been able to reset relations, committing its support to France’s fully fledged Indo-Pacific Strategy, announced in 2021.

A new agreement will see the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and the Forces’ Armees de la Nouvelle-Caledone (FANC) sharing access to French and Australian defence infrastructure. They are also stepping up interoperability, with the FANC now participating in Australia’s Talisman Sabre War games.

In the 2024 federal budget, the Albanese government allocated $20.7 million over five years, and $3.9 million a year after that, for the Australia-France Road Map.

It will fund an Australia-France Centre of Excellence in the Indo-Pacific “to support academic and professional engagement on security and defence trends to shape policymaking”.

These imperialist machinations in the Pacific are directly opposed by the Kanak independence struggle.

Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles travelled to Noumea in December 2023, as France hosted the South Pacific Ministers meeting for the first time.

There were spirited protests outside. The independence front FLNKS condemned the summit, saying: “France is using this meeting to present our country as an ‘aircraft carrier’ … [France] seeks to expand its presence in the region and its Indo-Pacific strategy through a remilitarisation of New Caledonia … contrary to the principles of United Nations, for non-self-governing territories seeking to be decolonised.”

As Louis Mapou, the first Kanak President of New Caledonia, told Australian journalist Nic Maclellan in July 2022: “We are at the crossroads … there is no doubt that France needs New Caledonia and French Polynesia for its Indo-Pacific strategy, facing other major powers in the region. But this is not our project.”

France’s new electoral law, if it comes into effect, would threaten current majorities held by the independence movement in the National Congress and severely disadvantage Kanak in any future referendum.

This is precisely the outcome desired by the French state, which is desperate to shore up its imperialist interests in the region.

While imperialist rulers from Sydney to Paris want to march us forward into a future of war and climate devastation, we should draw inspiration from the resistance of the Kanak and build solidarity across the Pacific with all struggles for liberation.


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