A Kanak flag waves next to a burning vehicle at a roadblock at La Tamoa in New Caledonia in May this year. (Photo: RNZ, Delphine Mayeur for AFP)

The deadly violence that erupted in Kanaky-New Caledonia a few weeks ago has its roots in colonialism and the recent actions of the French government, writes Tina Ngata, who argues that we should be standing in solidarity with Kanaks against colonialism in the Pacific.


I first learned about our ancient connection to Kanaky (New Caledonia) when I discovered that it was the home of Lapita pottery. These patterned shards that date back to nearly 2000 BC are some of our region’s oldest material culture — they’re a physical reminder of our ancestral presence in Te Moananui a Kiwa, the Pacific Ocean.

Lapita is also a crucial part of the whakapapa of our own visual arts here in Aotearoa, which evolved as our voyaging tīpuna moved out across Te Moananui a Kiwa. And, of course, Kanaky is a part of our Moana region, and where much of our renewed ocean voyaging science and skill derives.

It’s through learning this history that I came to evolve my own understanding of what it is to be a part of an Indigenous collective of Moana peoples: That we could be Indigenous not only to land, but to waters, and that the concept of “here” could exist in multiple spaces at one time. Here can be the land you’re standing on, the island you’re on, and also the waters that surround you and connect you to other lands and distant Moana relations.

Before that, all I’d heard about Kanaky was that there was political unrest in the 1980s, and that it was the home of “Club Med”. I guess that’s a testament to how readily we accept the contradictions of a tourist resort in the middle of the Pacific Ocean named after a sea on the other side of the planet. Being the age I was at the time, I didn’t connect how these two factors were bound by the cord of colonialism.

It’s through these two contexts — our ancient Moana ties and our common experience of colonialism — that the Māori and Kanak struggles have come together and stood in solidarity with one another over the years.

So we have longstanding relationships with our Kanak relations, and since the conflict broke out in Kanaky in May, some of us in Aotearoa have been provided with first-hand accounts from inside Kanaky, about exactly what was happening on the ground — even as the French government attempted to control the narrative. The reports are grim, and include killings by settler militia, unarmed Kanaks being shot at while fleeing for safety, police brutality, and the throwing of Kanak bodies into the ocean.

To understand the background to this conflict, we must start, of course, by looking back to its colonial underpinnings.

Kanaky was illegally annexed under Napoleon rule in 1853, and used by France as a penal colony. Even in these early stages, convicts were persuaded by French authorities to remain in Kanaky to support the colonisation process. From that point forward, French settlers have dispossessed Kanak peoples of their lands and usurped their political authority. Kanaks are now just 41 percent of the population. Like everywhere European colonialism has been imposed, it has resulted in an Indigenous population that is oppressed in every social and economic context imaginable.

“Colonial assassins” graffiti denouncing French colonial rule in the Place des Cocotiers, Noumea, 1984. (Photo: David Robie/PMC)

France is a signatory to the 1960 United Nations Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which is, comparatively, a rather brief document. There are only a handful of articles, which can be summarised as:

  1. The subjection of peoples to colonialism is a denial of fundamental human rights and contrary to the Charter of the United Nations.
  2. All peoples have the right to self-determination.
  3. Inadequacy of political, economic, social or educational preparedness should never delay independence.
  4. All armed action against colonised peoples should cease.
  5. Immediate steps shall be taken to transfer all powers to the peoples of colonised territories.

Compared to more recent declarations such as the Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it’s very simple. The preamble, which is longer than the articles, includes this statement from the final two paragraphs:

Convinced that all peoples have an inalienable right to complete freedom, the exercise of their sovereignty and the integrity of their national territory

. . . [The General Assembly] solemnly proclaims the necessity of bringing to a speedy and unconditional end colonialism in all its forms and manifestations.

But, despite these commitments, France has continued to exercise colonial domination.

Global movements for social justice and liberation across the 1960s, ‘70s and early ‘80s were reflected by Kanaks who collaborated with broader pan-Pacific movements (like the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement) against European colonialism and militarism.

A legacy of this relationship rests with our now famous resistance anthem “Ngā Iwi E”, which was originally a Kanak song adapted by Hirini Melbourne, Mereana Pitman, the Topp Twins and others, in preparation for the 1984 Festival of Arts in Kanaky.

And throughout these decades and into the 2000s, Kanak Liberationist Susanna Ounei united the anti-colonial causes of Free Kanaky, Free West Papua, Free Palestine and Mana Motuhake Māori.

The French commitment to militarism in the Pacific was clearly evidenced in their infamous bombing of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, which had been supporting the nuclear free Pacific movement against French militarism and weapons testing in our Moana region.

The Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior, after it was bombed by French agents in 1985. (Photo: AFP/NZ Herald)

By the time New Caledonia was re-scheduled for decolonisation in 1986, under the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, Kanaks were fed up with French double-talk.

The Kanak uprising of the 1980s, like the recent uprising, occurred within a context of France stating its commitment to decolonise under the 1960 UN declaration, while stating elsewhere their clear intention to retain Kanaky within the republic. As always, France’s actions speak more loudly of its true intentions: it has continued to shore up a settler population hostile to Kanak independence by deploying military forces in Kanaky and financially incentivising French nationalists to move there.

Unsurprisingly, after decades of such practices, there now exists a violent and armed French nationalist settler militia, responsible for much of the killing in Kanaky these past weeks.

It’s important to note that the right to self-determination is declared as an inalienable right — not only in those provisions in the 1960 declaration that France signed up to, but also in multiple other human rights documents. The UN doesn’t play with their words; a single word can take up days of debate there. “Inalienable” is an important word here, because it means it can’t be denied even by referendum.

I don’t point all of this out to diminish the work done by Kanak communities to secure the pro-independence vote, but to emphasise how incredibly generous the Kanaks were already being within the Noumea Accord, which was signed in 1998 after a significant period of Kanak resistance to French colonialism.

Under the Accord, the French republic promised to grant increased political power to Kanaky and the Kanak people over a 20-year transition period.

Sadly, Kanak generosity being repaid by French abuse is the recurring theme of this history, and French attempts to undermine the very generous Noumea Accord have been repeatedly exposed and criticised.

This includes the release of the French president Emmanuel Macron’s Indo-Pacific Strategy which outlines the persisting economic and military ambitions of France in the Pacific; Macron’s own statements that he intends to unilaterally ditch and replace the Noumea Accord; and the unilateral decision to pull forward a referendum during the Covid pandemic, in conflict with Kanak protocols for their dead.

Most brazenly, and at the root of the recent unrest, the French government has moved to push through legislation which would “unfreeze” immigration protections under the Noumea Accord, granting voting rights to some 25,000 new settlers, largely white French people, many of whom are far-right nationalists who will never support Kanak independence.

After months of peaceful Kanak resistance to the move, and repeated warnings to the French government that continuing with the bill would lead to widespread civil unrest (all ignored), the predictable, and completely preventable, occurred. Kanak youth are, as Kanak activist Jessie Ounei observed, simply fed up with the lies, inaction, and betrayal. Since last year, Kanak leaders have declared France unfit to engage with in the absence of independent oversight.

It’s infuriating, to say the least, to see the French Ambassador to the Pacific make repeated statements that brazenly ignore the misconduct of France under both the UN declaration and the Noumea Accord; that ignore the peaceful, diplomatic and dignified political means by which Kanak have already tried to resolve these issues; and that invisibilise the extreme violence visited largely upon Kanak peoples in the past weeks.

At the same time, it’s so very recognisable to those of us engaged in anti-colonial work. It mirrors the colonial audacity of Israel before the world now, and the language and actions of all colonial governments around the world — the New Zealand government included.

When footage surfaced earlier this week showing French security forces kicking an unarmed and restrained Kanak youth in the head, it followed a pattern that we’ve seen in Standing Rock and Ihumātao, where the state tries to control the narrative, demonising the innocent as a precursor to carrying out state violence. Even after lifting the state of emergency, further footage surfaced of Kanak youth being shot at from helicopters.

Macron’s fleeting 18-hour visit to Kanaky did very little to quell Kanak concerns, and after saying that the voting change “won’t be pushed through with force today in the current context”, he had barely landed back in France before making clear statements that he still intends to do so, and could also trigger a referendum, in France, to decide the way forward for Kanaky.

All of this amounts to simply more of the French double-talk that created the tension in the first place, which means that an end to the crisis is not likely in the near future.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the New Zealand response has largely centred on evacuating tourists, rather than making it clear to France that, as Kanaky’s closest neighbour, and as a nation with deep historical ties to the issue of French colonialism in the Pacific, we expect France to protect the interests of peace in our region. Particularly by honouring its commitments under both the 1960 UN declaration on decolonisation and the Noumea Accord. That’s the kind of diplomacy we would’ve expected from a foreign affairs minister under a Tiriti-centred government.

Kanak Liberation Leader Eloi Machoro, assassinated by French police in 1985. His  headstone reads: “On tue le révolutionnaire mais on ne tue pas ses idées.” You can kill the revolutionary but you can’t kill his ideas. (Screenshot)

Whatever the New Zealand response is, we can be assured that Kanak people will never stop reaching for justice on their own lands.

In many ways, the Kanak resistance is highlighting the regional tensions arising out of the military and economic rivalry in the Pacific between China and the US. These tensions exist not only in Kanaky, but also in Guahan, Okinawa, Hawai‘i, Tahiti, and, yes, here in Aotearoa as well.

The strategic geopolitical importance of Kanaky to the global colonial project cannot be overstated here; it is very much connected to the broader concerns for Indigenous existence and planetary wellbeing.

AUKUS will build on numerous other military relationships between Australia, the UK and US (and often Canada as well) — an alliance referred to as the Core Anglosphere, forged in the interests of preserving colonialism, and maintained through military agreements.

If that term sounds familiar, it’s because Christopher Luxon and Winston Peters have made repeated references to returning to our “traditional partners”, which are not the Moana relationships we’ve held for over 3000 years but the colonial relationships we’ve had for 180.

Militarism across the Pacific — with its associated issues of war games and weapons testing (for example, RIMPAC), toxic weapons-waste dumping, nuclear waste dumping, increased sexual assaults and human trafficking, increased strategic risk, hyper-surveillance and armed oppression — has been roundly condemned by Pacific communities for generations.

So, too, economic exploitation. Kanaky is one of the world’s leading producers of nickel, a metal with increasing value for its importance in e-batteries. It also has a flourishing maritime economy that includes seabed mining, maritime transport and industrial fishing. The incomes from these flow back into the larger French economy as well as Kanaky — but even the money that remains in the country does not flow to Kanak households.

It’s just all so recognisable to Indigenous eyes.

Once again, it is Indigenous rights, as Sina Brown-Davis puts it, that are the roadblock to militarism and exploitation in the Pacific. Once again, Indigenous peoples are all that stand between violent, rapacious colonial greed and Papatūānuku. Once again, we see the audacity and complete lack of integrity by European colonisers. Over and over again, we see the tired colonial tactics of attempting to control the narrative, making invisible its own criminality, and abusing its privilege to evade accountability.

We don’t just stand in solidarity with our Kanak relations. We stand in awe of them.

May their courage ignite the flame in all of us to reach for justice no matter the size of the bully in front of you. May we all stand up to colonialism, and stand firmly in the way of militarism. May we all say enough is enough to the colonial fictions that continue to be spewed at us.

And may we all call for a Free Kanaky.


Tina Ngata (Ngāti Porou) is a researcher and scholar, and the author of Kia Mau: Resisting Colonial Fictions. Her work involves advocacy for environmental, Indigenous and human rights. This includes local, national and international initiatives that highlight the role of settler colonialism in issues such as climate change and waste pollution, and which promote Indigenous conservation as best practice for a globally sustainable future.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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