French Eden in trouble

RICHARD PHINNEY November 25 1985

French Eden in trouble

RICHARD PHINNEY November 25 1985

French Eden in trouble


It has been called the Paris of the Pacific. Its broad avenues are congested with French Citroën and Peugeot cars, driven noisily and fast. Residents linger in outdoor cafés, and topless tourists sip Perrier on the beach between the Club Med Hotel and the casino. But Nouméa (population 65,000), capital of the French territory of New Caledonia, is only 750 miles from Australia—halfway around the world from Paris. Now, the tropical paradise is seething with anger. Governed by France for 132 years, the eight-island territory is undergoing political unrest which is reverberating 13,000 miles away, in the corridors of the French government.

During the past decade New Caledonia’s 64,000-strong native Melanesian population, known as Kanaks, have formed a powerful independence movement. Last September the militant independence party, the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak Socialiste (FLNKS), won a majority of seats in three of the territory’s four regional assemblies. Still, they do not control the national assembly, which is subject to French authority. Said the elated front leader, former Roman Catholic seminarian and historian Jean-Marie Tjibaou: “Independence is now an inevitable step in the Caledonian consciousness.”

But France could lose more than a colonial territory. The area, rich in the strategic metal nickel, is the non-communist world’s second-largest exporter of the metal after Canada. In addition, an independent Kanak state led by the front would likely demand that France shut down its four military bases now located there.

As well, self-government could encourage the growing independence movement in nearby French Polynesia, site of the controversial French nuclear test programs in the South Pacific. And like other Pacific governments, New Caledonia led by the front would oppose France’s nuclear testing in the area—a policy that Paris finds difficult to defend after a major controversy when French agents bombed the antinuclear Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior four months ago.

The independence movement is weakened by the fact that the Kanaks are a minority in their own country. They make up approximately 43 per cent of the total population of 145,000, about the same as the white French settlers. But thousands of foreign

workers, mostly from the former French colonies of Indonesia and Vietnam, who went to the island during the nickel boom of the 1960s and early 1970s, have upset the demographic balance. And they are as adamantly proFrench as the whites are.

As a result, despite the strong showing by the front in the rural areas, 61 per cent of the overall vote in the recent regional elections was shared among pro-France parties, chief of which is the right-wing Rassemblement pour la Calédonie dans la République. Said Yves Magnier, an RPCR moderate: “The FLNKS is racist. They want independence for the blacks only. If a minority should be given power there would be civil war.”

When white settlers gather in the bar of Nouméa’s Hotel Caledonia, they say that they wholeheartedly support France’s nuclear testing program in the region. Indeed, behind the hotel reception desk are three prominently displayed, enlarged framed color photographs of the above-ground nuclear explosions of the early 1970s on the French Polynesian island of Mururoa. Whites say that there are benefits in being a territory of France. Until 1980 they paid no income tax. Many earn comfortable incomes from cattle farms or mining the nickel that makes up 95 per cent of New Caledonia’s total ex-

port revenue. Forty per cent of New Caledonian government spending is funded by the French government, in effect subsidizing middle-class standards of French life in the islands. Said RPCR regional and national assembly member Charles Lavoix, a prominent Nouméan businessman: “When the French arrived here, the Melanesians were cannibals, always fighting each other. Now the quality of roads, hospitals and schools is superior to other countries in the region. It is in the interests of Kanaks, and the region, that France remain here.”

Despite the sophistication of French culture and institutions, the Kanaks have never accepted white domination. The islands were first discovered in 1774 by the English explorer Capt. James Cook, who named the largest island New Caledonia because its rugged hills reminded him of the coast of Scotland. Almost a century later, after a handful of French missionaries and settlers had arrived, the crew of the French survey ship Alcmene was massacred by the islanders; local history texts say that the sailors were eaten by cannibal natives. That massacre spurred France to annex the islands, both to protect the Frenchmen living there and to use it as a penal colony.

As settlers arrived throughout the late 19th century, they displaced the natives from their fishing and farming communities along the coast and built large, prosperous farms in the plains between the sea and the mountains. Then, in 1863 settlers discovered the colony’s vast nickel deposits. The Kanaks staged several revolts in protest but they suffered a decisive loss in 1878, when French artillery killed 2,000 tribesmen led by Aita, a Kanak chief.

French mining companies swiftly moved in and displaced the Kanaks, placing them in reservation-style designated regions in the mountainous interior. The native islanders now live chiefly in the inland rural areas and still work as laborers in mining, public services and agriculture. Said Guy Tamammi, a Kanak musician who writes and records songs for the independence movement: “The whites must realize that it is time to return what they have to the Kanaks. But they find it hard to give up.”

Indeed, the Socialist government of François Mitterrand has often shifted policies on the issue. In 1983 the government announced that it recognized “the innate and active right” of the Kanaks to self-government. Then, last summer Paris announced that it would postpone an independence referendum until 1987. But recent moves may soften that blow: Paris intends to strengthen the regional governments

and launch land reforms to give the Kanaks more economic equality with whites.

Those reforms come on the heels of a yearlong spate of violence, ballot-box burnings and revenge killings between Kanaks and white settlers which have claimed more than 20 lives. Yannick Girard, a fifth-generation French settler who is the manager at Nouméa’s swank Café de Paris, said: “I never thought New Caledonia could be like this. The Kanaks have become aggressive. They attack you, even kill you, for no reason.”

But the issues are clear to the Kanaks. Alienated by a Paris-run state school system that makes few concessions to Melanesian culture and language, Kanaks find it difficult to succeed in the modern world that the French have imposed on them. They watch French television programs and greet each other with kisses on both cheeks in the French style but they subsist on an income one-fifth that of the white settlers. Currently, radical Kanaks are successfully working to attract native students to their own schools, which teach local languages,

history and agricultural skills.

Increasingly, Kanak young people can be seen practising traditional war dances on the paved parking lots of their concrete apartment blocks. Although the front declares that it will continue to seek independence through democratic channels, it has recently sent 17 men to Libya for a course in guerrilla warfare. Said 44-year-old teacher Françoise Machoro, whose brother was shot dead in a skirmish with French soldiers earlier this year: “We do not want France deciding for us anymore.”

The town of St. Philippo, a cluster of board and sheet-metal houses 90 km north of Nouméa, is a stronghold of the independence movement. Painted on many of the walls and doors is the red, green, blue, yellow and black flag of Kanaky—the name Kanaks would give to an independent New Caledonia. Recently, St. Philippo was the scene of several violent confrontations between residents and police. The charred remains of the stores and homes of white settlers who have since fled to Nouméa attest to local antiwhite passions. Said Wilfrid Nanmoira, 17, a St. Philippo auto mechanic: “I will fight to get my country back.” He says that he counts himself an independence fighter in the classic tradition. His dingy, sparsely furnished bedroom features posters of the late Jamaican radical reggae singer Bob Marley, Cuban guerrilla leader Che Guevara and Bobby Sands, the jailed IRA gunman who died in a hunger strike in Northern Ireland. “I am not afraid to die,” added the militant Nanmoira. The community is so hostile that French politicians were stoned there last August when making a tour of the community.

For their part, the white settlers are awaiting the outcome of France’s national elections in March. At that time the Socialists are expected to lose their majority. And Jacques Chirac, leader of the right-wing opposition Rassemblement pour la République, has pledged, if elected, that the islands will not become independent until a majority want it—including the whites.

But some whites, including those who oppose New Caledonia’s independence, concede that such a course could lead to further violence. In preparation, white extremists have been stocking guns and dynamite. Said Jacques Boudelard, one of the few white members of the front: “In the past the Kanaks have given their hand to the whites and the whites have not taken it. I am very pessimistic about the future of New Caledonia.”