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In New Caledonia, France’s colonial history is catching up with the government

Photo: Remy Middle Archives Agence France-Presse On April 27, 1988, a police officer from the Republican Security Companies (CRS) arrested two Kanak civilians, activists of the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), during military “combing” operations during the hostage-taking from Gossanah Cave. On May 5, 1988, 19 Kanak separatists, all from Ouvéa, were killed by elite units of the French army during the attack on the cave where they were holding their hostages.

Hélène Duvigneau – Agence France-Presse in Paris

Published at 2:10 p.m. Updated at 2:23 p.m.

  • Europe

After three decades of peace, France's colonial history in New Caledonia is catching up with the government. The political crisis has been brewing since the contested 2021 referendum and is coupled with an explosive social situation, against a backdrop of discrimination and ethnic tensions, according to researchers.

Historically conquered for its natural resources, New Caledonia was also considered by France as “a settlement colony”, recalled the anthropologist Benoît Trépied on Wednesday on France Culture.

Alongside a colonized indigenous people, the Kanaks, several waves of migrants followed one another: convicts brought from mainland France, settlers, Oceanian and Asian workers.

“For a long time […], the indigenous people and all the others looked at each other a bit like dogs because the society was very segregated,” underlines the researcher.

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This colonial tension did not disappear with the abolition of the colony in 1946, and ultimately resulted in the “deadly face to face” of the 1980s, a latent civil war until the Ouvéa massacre.

On May 5, 1988, a military assault was launched against the Ouvéa cave in New Caledonia where Kanak separatists had been holding 27 hostages since April 22. Nineteen Kanak militants and two soldiers were killed.

In New Caledonia, France’s colonial history is catching up with the government

Photo: Remy Middle Agence France-Presse On May 8, 1988, families gathered in Ouvéa in front of the graves of the 19 independence activists killed on May 5, 1988 by the French armed forces, in the Gossanah cave, where the latter were holding gendarmes hostage. The assault left 21 dead, including 19 Kanaks and two soldiers. (Photo by REMY MOYEN/AFP)

“Colonial history continues to fuel the resentment of part of the population,” observes Evelyne Barthou, lecturer in sociology in Pau. “When I interview young people, there is still this transmission in the families of this colonial past, of all the abuses that were committed against the Kanaks, the dispossession of land, the rapes, the submission to forced labor “.

The situation had calmed down since the Matignon agreements, extended by the Nouméa agreement in 1998.

In New Caledonia, France’s colonial history is catching up with the government

Photo: Remy Middle Agence France-Presse French army troops await their departure after the release of hostages from the Gossanah cave on May 5, 1988, an attack that caused the death of 19 Kanak militants and two soldiers.

To build the decolonization of New Caledonia, the challenge was to “build a citizenship of New Caledonia bringing together the Kanak people and other long-established communities”, underlines Benoît Trépied.

A project of “social and political unification” within France, “but with a vocation of emancipation”, he recalls.

But at the end of 2021, a political shift began with the organization of a third referendum on independence against the wishes of the separatists.

“Since this referendum, organized in the middle of Covid and in the midst of mourning for Kanak families, the French state has clearly gone beyond its role of impartiality to take a position in favor of anti-independence activists,” believes Isabelle Leblic, emeritus research director at CNRS.


But it is the desire to expand the electoral body which ignites the powder, just like in the 1980s. The Kanaks fear that the arrival of 25,000 new voters, half of them born locally, will put them in a political minority while they already represent numerically than 41% of the population.

“There’s no surprise in what’s happening. Far from being a sanction against Europeans, the freezing of the electorate aimed to protect the Kanak population, which had already been halved in the 19th century due in particular to insurrections bloodily repressed,” comments Evelyne Barthou, also attached at the University of New Caledonia.

This political crisis is coupled with a highly flammable social situation in a territory with very armed populations, where “ethnic identities” clearly overlap “with social inequalities”, indicates Benoît Trépied, recalling that the wealth gaps in Caledonia “are much greater than in mainland France”.

« There is certainly a small Kanak bourgeoisie, but 70% of the poor are Kanaks, while the metropolitans have a lot of money, a lot of power and are often in key positions,” adds Evelyne Barthou.

Among young Kanaks, “the feeling of injustice” is by far “the most widely shared feeling”, according to her.

Questioning identity, social difficulties, political context, economic crisis linked to nickel – a mineral at the heart of the local economy – and climate uncertainty are all factors fueling the revolt.

If they do not always recognize themselves in the independence representatives, young people are very politicized. During the last demonstration called by the CCAT, they ensured order, without excess, according to Ms. Leblic.

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116