France Deploys Troops to Crush Anti-Colonial Rebellion in the Pacific

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New Caledonia Kanak Flag Being Flown During Rebellion
New Caledonia Kanak Flag Being Flown During Rebellion

Territory controlled by Paris illustrates the ongoing imperialist legacy in New Caledonia

Geostrategic Analysis

Although President Emmanuel Macron frequently criticizes other states for not being democratic, his administration has recently utilized military force to smash an uprising stemming from the oppression and exploitation of the Kanak people of the Southwest Pacific region.

The territory labelled as “New Caledonia” has been a French colony since 1853 after it was annexed by Rear Admiral Febvrier Despointes in order to prevent the intervention by British imperialism.

The indigenous Melanesian Kanaks constitute a minority on the archipelago as a result of the imposition of settlers from France and other areas. Beginning on May 13, the Kanak people through their pro-independence organizations led a campaign against a voting reform law which the indigenous people say will curtail their electoral power in the territory by granting voting rights to non-indigenous people who arrived after 1988.

President Macron deployed 3,000 police and military units to put down the rebellion. At least seven people were reported killed and many others were injured. Protesters set up barricades blocking key areas of the territory including the capital of Noumea and the airport. French authorities said that over 500 people were arrested during the rebellion.

French police and military forces are attempting to clear the hundreds of burnt-out vehicles scattered throughout key areas in the territories. However, the underlying causes of the conflict have not been addressed by the authorities which operate on behalf of Paris.

Colonial administrators declared a “state of emergency” where restrictions on the movement of people and a curfew was enacted. During early June, the emergency orders were partially lifted even though the curfew remained in effect.

There were similar rebellions during the 1980s which demanded national independence for the Kanaka population. Eventually, an agreement was reached in 1988 which would establish a gradual process for autonomy. Nonetheless, the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) continues to advocate for full independence.

The French government scrapped the 1988 accord after an election which was highly criticized by the independence movement. Since 1988, approximately 40,000 French nationals have settled in New Caledonia.

Amid the recent rebellion, Macron travelled to New Caledonia and held talks with the leadership of the independence movement. The president agreed to pause the implementation of the new electoral law although it was not clear if the legislation would be reintroduced at some point in the future.

On May 31, Radio France International (RFI) reported on the situation after nearly three weeks of unrest saying that:
“Elite police units and gendarmes carried out an operation to secure the Rivière-Salée neighborhood north of the capital – the last to have roadblocks in place. In a post on social media, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said 12 people had been arrested and 26 roadblocks removed. The operation mobilized 400 law enforcement personnel, the French High Commission in New Caledonia told reporters. Despite assurances the capital had been brought under full control, local officials said some neighborhoods remained blocked. Sonia Backès, president of the South Province and a key figure in the Loyalist movement, said there were still problems in neighborhoods including Mont-Dore, Païta and Dumbéa. ‘The state has the means to act, as we saw in Rivière-Salée, and it’s urgent to do so wherever necessary,’ she told reporters. Another roadblock was being dismantled by gendarmes at La Tamoa, near La Tontouta International Airport, which remains closed to commercial flights until Monday.” (https://www.rfi.fr/en/france/20240531-new-caledonia-capital-noum%C3%A9a-under-control-interior-ministry)

The Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) told the French president that unrest would continue until the electoral reform law was withdrawn. Macron said he would not force through the revised electoral law, however, the president emphasized that the unrest must be halted.

After three weeks, there are still no-go areas in the capital and the tension among the Kanaks remains extremely high. France has not shifted its position on independence for New Caledonia and consequently, the struggle against colonial occupation will continue.

The population living in the archipelago is divided between those who want to achieve national independence and others seeking to remain under the tutelage of France. The FLNKS was founded in 1984 as a result of a merger of pro-independence organizations.

A Long History of Resistance Against French Colonialism

Since the occupation of New Caledonia in the 1850s to the incorporation by Paris as a French Overseas Territory after World War II, the Kanak people have resisted domination by the colonial system. During the late 1980s, resistance forces made temporary advances by taking control of various areas of the territory including the capital of Noumea.

French interests in the territory stem from the large nickel deposits inside the archipelago. It has been said that the territory has 25% of the world’s known nickel.

In addition, the territory is located in the vicinity of Australia, a main ally of western imperialism. One French analyst believes that if Paris cannot resolve the current crisis, it could benefit the People’s Republic of China as it relates to the further alienation and radicalization of the indigenous people of New Caledonia.

Another independence grouping known as the Field Action Coordination Cell (CATT) was instrumental in organizing the recent wave of resistance against France. Its leader, Christian Tien, encouraged Kanaks to fly their independence flags during the rebellion.

Despite the unrest which has erupted in New Caledonia in recent weeks, France is still encouraging people in the archipelago to participate in the upcoming European Union (EU) elections. As a French Overseas Territory, people in New Caledonia are eligible to cast their votes to select the 720 people who will be seated in the EU Parliament.

However, an article in the Associated Press suggests that most of the indigenous Kanak people are not interested in these developments. The report notes:
“Most of New Caledonia’s 270,000 residents are eligible to participate in the European elections, the second-biggest exercise in democracy behind India’s recent elections. Starting Saturday, almost 400 million voters will elect 720 members of the European Parliament, influencing everything from global climate and security policies to migration issues and relations with powers like China and the United States that have been asserting themselves in the South Pacific. But that feels far away for many in New Caledonia, long the setting for tensions between those seeking independence and those loyal to France…. Alan Boufenèche, director of a civic initiative in Nouméa, said the French military delivered ballot boxes and voting material on Monday. Police and army troops will escort municipal workers to distribute them among 57 polling stations that will be grouped on six sites in the capital instead of the usual 37 for security. Speaking to France Info, Boufenèche said several of municipal offices were damaged and many of their vehicles set on fire in the violence, ‘so we are making do with what we have.’” (https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/france-hurries-new-caledonia-vote-european-elections-after-110856399)

This latest round of mass demonstrations and rebellions among the Kanaks in New Caledonia illustrates clearly the pro-independence sentiment among the people. Even though a series of elections held after the Matignon Accord signed by Kanak representatives and the French colonial authorities in the late 1980s resulted in defeats for the independence parties, pro-liberation forces have never been satisfied with how the referendums were organized. Some of these elections were boycotted by the independence parties which claimed that the elections were rigged against the liberation movements.

France Maintains Colonial and Neo-Colonial Outposts

Many people view the independence struggles which emerged during the post-World War II period as having been resolved. Although many former French colonies in Africa did win their independence in the 1960s and 1970s, France continued to hold on to several territories in the Indian Ocean off the coast of East Africa, as well as in the Caribbean and the South Pacific.

At present the French Overseas Territories consist of Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique, La Réunion, Mayotte, Saint Barthélemy, Saint Martin, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, Wallis and Futuna, French Polynesia, New Caledonia and the French Southern and Antarctic Territories. Within these geo-political regions many people are continuing the movement for full independence. When African descendant communities erupted in rebellion during 2023 in response to the police killing of a teenager in France, there were outbreaks in the French Caribbean islands which are inhabited by Black people.

In various West African states in recent years, former French colonies such as Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have witnessed the emergence of military governments which have demanded the withdrawal of Parisian forces from their countries. Niger has also broken off from the military accord which provided the United States with the rights to construct drone stations and the deployment of Pentagon troops as part of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).

The Kanak people are representative of the anti-imperialist movement which has continued well into the 21st century. Their status within New Caledonia will only result in more rebellions and campaigns aimed at national liberation.

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