Inside Story

New Caledonia’s date with destiny

With a referendum on self-determination due in a year’s time, young Kanaks are debating their future

Nic Maclellan 11 December 2017 2231 words

Heroes and martyrs: graffiti marking 150 years of Kanak revolts: Chief Atai (1878 revolt against France); Eloi Machoro (independence leader shot by French police in 1985); FLNKS leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou (assassinated in 1989); and musician Jacques “Kiki” Kare. Nic Maclellan

It’s early Monday morning and we’re on the road to the capital Noumea from New Caledonia’s Northern Province. The bus is full of young people heading back to school or work, after a weekend visiting their families in their home villages.

On the outskirts of town, we’re halted by a contingent of French gendarmes. The police block both exits from the bus and send a sniffer dog through, searching for drugs. After the dog reacts to one bag, a young Kanak girl is taken off for questioning. She returns shamefaced after the gendarmes had rummaged through her bag in front of everyone, waving her underclothes in the air, without finding any pakalolo.

New Caledonia has changed a lot since the armed conflict of the mid 1980s, known as les évènements (the Troubles). But interactions like this suggest that inter-community reconciliation still has a way to go.

Last September, a fight between students outside a high school in Noumea saw police deploy a helicopter and thirty-five gendarmes to break up the fight. With footage of the incident going viral, there was much pontification on social media about the problems of the younger generation, and quite a bit of racist abuse aimed at young Kanaks, the indigenous Melanesian people of New Caledonia.

Media commentary frequently portrays young people as delinquents, as layabouts, as a “social problem,” belying the commitment and enthusiasm of young New Caledonians. Given the opportunity, they surge forward to have their say.

They have similar aspirations — about jobs, sexuality, family life and getting involved in community activities — to their counterparts’ in other island nations. But in a colonial society, core differences remain between young Kanaks and those from other ethnic communities.

Despite efforts to improve education and vocational training for Kanaks, vast disparities in qualifications and employment still exist. As young Kanaks move from rural areas to the capital, seeking education, employment and enjoyment, they face competition from the sons and daughters of French bureaucrats arriving from Paris. The new arrivals are armed with better qualifications and fewer cultural obligations to clan and community. With public servants receiving massive subsidies courtesy of the French taxpayer, housing costs have been pushed out of reach of many locals.

With the referendum campaign intensifying, anti-independence politicians have tapped into the prejudice against young Kanaks, making coded complaints about “youth delinquency.” As with Aboriginal and Islander youth in Australia, a climate of moral panic leads to demands for tougher action in the courts.

“Where do we see the benefits from this process of decolonisation that’s under way?” asks a leader of the local branch of the National Front. “In these bands of hooligans, eyes red from alcohol and cannabis, who threaten tourists, or smash up and burn cars?”

Youth leader Bilo Railati of the Association Jeunesse Kanaky Monde, or AJKM, says the justice system lacks appropriate programs for youth diversion and alternatives to incarceration. “They always talk about delinquency, but it’s a word I don’t like to use,” he says. “It’s true we have an upsurge in carjackings and home break-ins. But 90 per cent of prisoners in the Camp Est prison are Kanak, even though we only make up 40 per cent of New Caledonia’s population.”

For Railati, the solution lies in better training and job opportunities. “There are waves of people going overseas for training, however I think we need to change our structures here at home,” he says. “Earlier this year, there was a demonstration because there are many Kanaks, Tahitians and Wallisians [Polynesians from Wallis and Futuna] who can’t find a place in higher education.”

Teacher and historian Paul Fizin has worked as a youth consultant with New Caledonia’s Customary Senate, which brings together chiefs from the country’s eight cultural regions. Many of those leaders recognise the need to support young Kanaks and address their concerns over cultural values, the environment, jobs and training.

“The figures are stark,” he says. “Nearly half the population of New Caledonia is aged less than thirty years, but only two out of five young people have a job. There are enormous educational disparities. One in every two Europeans has a higher degree — the figure is nearer one in twenty for Kanaks and Wallisians.”

With support from the Customary Senate, Fizin helped to organise a series of youth consultations in each of New Caledonia’s eight cultural regions. These were followed by three national congresses for Kanak youth between 2010 and 2015. Other programs focus on cultural activities, tapping the widespread creativity in dance, painting, hip-hop and kaneka — the fusion of reggae, rock and traditional Kanak rhythms popular with young people around the country.

Fizin says all young people have common concerns over education, jobs, family and sexuality, but there are variations between people living in outlying rural areas and those in the working-class suburbs of Noumea.

“There is a problem that urban youth are sometimes accused of not being ‘real’ Kanaks,” he says. “Growing up in the quartiers populaires, they don’t know village life and aren’t fluent in their traditional languages. But they have their own culture and identity in the twenty-first century, often outside the churches and the traditional political parties.”

Walking around Noumea or the bush, you often see young people wearing hoodies emblazoned with the Kanaky flag or pictures of three icons of rebellion: Bob Marley, Che Guevara or Eloi Machoro (a Kanak independence leader gunned down by French police in 1985). But in spite of these symbols, many young people are not fully aware of the history of Kanak nationalism in the 1970s and 80s.

As one teenager told me, “Our parents don’t talk much about les évènements, even though they were on the barricades. In school we don’t hear much about that time, so you have to go and ask if you want to understand the struggle of the Kanak people.”

Next year, eighteen-year-olds who are registered to vote will have the opportunity to participate in a referendum on self-determination. This will be the culmination of a twenty-year transition under the Noumea Accord, which has seen economic, social and political “rebalancing” across the country and the transfer of powers from Paris to the local administration.

But first-time voters were not born when the Noumea Accord was signed in May 1998. Daniel Goa, president of the independence party Union Calédonienne, highlights the need to register thousands of young voters, mobilising them in the face of a widespread lack of interest in elite politics.

“Currently, about 40 per cent of Kanaks — or at least 30 per cent — don’t vote,” he tells me. “So we must work at the level of the family, to provide information so these people can be found. We will find a way to reach out to each tribe, to each extended family, to contact people who are not registered to vote or who abstain. Our objective for 2018 is to mobilise the majority of electors who might participate.”

Bilo Railati says that AJKM, which is aligned with Union Calédonienne, the oldest political party in New Caledonia, is reaching out to young people, trying to stress the importance of next year’s vote. “The fundamental problem we have now in New Caledonia,” he says, “is that we’re heading towards a referendum, but there are still some people who don’t know what the Noumea Accord or the transfer of sovereign powers means.

“For a small minority, they don’t want to participate in the electoral process, because for them democracy in New Caledonia is a fraud. But this is only a minority view. The real problem is that there are many young Kanaks who’d like to vote, but they have problems enrolling because they lack the necessary documentary proof and have been turned away by bureaucrats at their mairie [town hall].”

Without compulsory voting, mobilising the electorate is a major challenge. Many voters in Kanak-majority areas abstained from voting in the French presidential elections in June this year. In the Loyalty Islands, for instance, less than one in ten eligible voters turned out, while in the Northern Province, participation ranged between 20 and 30 per cent. Voting was higher in areas where many Europeans live, such as the capital Noumea (62.9 per cent) and surrounding towns like Dumbea (61.4 per cent), Mont-Dore (57.4 per cent) and Paita (58.8 per cent).

But Railati thinks that most young Kanaks understand the importance of next year’s referendum. “I truly think that people will turn out,” he says. “Every month we go out to the villages, to the tribes to talk to people. Everyone knows that next year’s vote is different to the French presidential or legislative elections — it’s a decision on our own destiny. Many young people are waiting for 2018 with impatience.”

For non-indigenous New Caledonians, the referendum debate poses complex questions of sovereignty and reconciliation. New Caledonia has a large community from Wallis and Futuna, with many migrants arriving from their Polynesian homeland during the nickel boom of the 1970s. Today, more Wallisians live in New Caledonia than on their home islands. For a younger generation born in Noumea and surrounding towns, the Melanesian nation is their home.

Although most Wallisians are opposed to independence, some support Kanak sovereignty through the USTKE trade union confederation or the Rassemblement Démocratique Océanien party. Arnaud Chollet-Leakava, president of the RDO’s youth wing, Mouvement de Jeunesse Ocèanienne, believes that younger Wallisians must stay to build the country. “Whatever the outcome of the 2018 referendum,” he says, “our future is here in Kanaky-New Caledonia and will never be elsewhere. We will make all efforts to see the emergence of a new country, this new nation, the Caledonian people.”

Women will also play a vital role in the referendum campaign. A few years ago, arriving by helicopter at the site of the new Koniambo nickel smelter in New Caledonia’s Northern Province, I noticed that all the firefighters at the airport were Kanak women. The construction of this nickel processing plant had created new jobs in the north, and Koniambo Nickel Society — 51 per cent controlled by the Northern Province — proudly proclaimed that a third of its workforce was female.

Since the independence uprising of the 1980s, the lives of women have changed in many ways. Under the Noumea Accord, a major focus on education and training has created new pathways for women to enter non-traditional employment. Since the end of the conflict in 1988, women have seized opportunities in training programs such as 400 Cadres and Cadres Avenir. In 1989, women only made up 20 per cent of participants; by 2015, the figure was 42 per cent.

The French parity law, ensuring equal participation of men and women in electoral lists, has transformed municipal councils and the national Congress. In 2004, Marie-Noelle Themereau and Dewe Gorode served as the first elected female president and vice-president in the Pacific islands. Today, women make up 46 per cent of the Congress, a sharp contrast to neighbouring Melanesian nations, where women are rarely present in the legislature. In an unprecedented victory, Sonia Lagarde was elected mayor of Noumea in 2014.

But all these role models have not ended violence against women in the home or workplace, nor cultural constraints that limit participation in some community activities.

Rose Waen Wete, who comes from a family of leading Kanak theologians, lived much of her childhood in Fiji and Australia, where her parents were undertaking religious studies. Today, she is president of the Yaqona Koneksen Sunset, a kava circle that links a polyglot mixture of young people — French and New Caledonian, Kanak and Caldoche, with the occasional Aussie or Kiwi thrown into the mix.

“We hold regular talanoa nights around the kava bowl, to debate politics and culture and the future of our society,” she says. While many members are actively involved in political activity, they are often critical of an older generation of leaders, and eager to debate the type of society that might follow any change in political status for New Caledonia.

In her poem “Being a Modern Kanak Woman,” Wete writes about the dilemmas of juggling cultural obligations, career and family:

I have lived and grown up all my life outside my Island home
I have lived and grown up in a Pacific mixed culture
But when I returned to my Island home, I always return to my roots
I know my history, culture, custom and family tree
I have become a woman now and I see myself as modern
Not because I’m educated, employed or have material wealth
But because I do not always agree with what my parents want of me
I am independent, I don’t need a man, don’t need to get married, and don’t need to link my clan to another
I am modern, I work and have a career and I am very ambitious!
Yes, I contribute to my “obligation coutumier”
I send money for engagements, weddings and funerals
But hey, enough is enough
I have my responsibilities as a mother, to bring food to the table, to pay bills
I love my culture, my “coutume,” but I love my children even more!

As voters prepare to decide on the future of their country, this concern for the next generation will play a key part in the decision — whether to stay with France or take the leap into the future as a new sovereign nation. •