Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 07:45 | SYDNEY
Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 07:45 | SYDNEY

Industrial strife as New Caledonia goes to the polls

16 March 2009 15:33

On 11 March, in New Caledonia, French gendarmes used teargas (subscription required) to disperse 400 unionists who were blockading the airport. The blockade was orchestrated by the prominent Union of Exploited Kanak Workers (USTKE). Protesters began throwing stones at the 200 French police sent to restore order, and police responded with teargas. Activity spilled over to a nearby primary school, frightening staff and students.

This event did not even merit a mention in our newspapers, despite the fact that New Caledonia is only two hours flying time from Brisbane, and that Australians number about 20% of the 100,000 tourists flying there each year.

The scene of French police battling Kanak protesters brings to mind the unrest which led to civil war in New Caledonia in the 1980s – a civil war which resulted in deaths of indigenous Kanaks and French police personnel alike. So should we be worried? Yes and no. 

On the one hand, strikes and blockades are an ongoing feature of New Caledonian political life. Also, this protest kicks off a local election campaign. The USTKE itself has formed a new political party, the Parti Travailliste (Workers Party) and is running candidates. And there has been a string of protests about the high costs of living in other French overseas possessions, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Réunion, in recent weeks.  All of this suggests the protest is just another attempt by workers to make their point at a judicious time.

But there are more worrying features of this airport blockade. 

First, the protest is not just focused on cost of living issues. The USTKE is instead protesting about immigration inflows from the French mainland, an extremely sensitive issue in New Caledonia. In the 1970s and 80s the French State openly carried out a policy of encouraging French metropolitan immigration in a bid to outnumber those Kanaks and longstanding white settlers, known as Caldoches, who were calling for independence. 

Many specialized French workers came in too, in response to a boom in the production of nickel, of which New Caledonia is the world’s third largest producer. The subsequent bust was a real aggravator to peace and stability, adding to tensions which erupted into virtual civil war. 

Pointing to the immigration influx from the motherland resonates especially now, after the most recent nickel boom, during which French and other experts and their families have come to develop two large multi-billion dollar nickel projects in New Caledonia. They have been highly conspicuous consumers. 

With the global crisis and a plummeting international nickel price (from US$54,000 a ton early last year to below US$10,000 now), Kanak and Caldoche concern has been heightened. But democracy is working: the local New Caledonian Government, including both pro-France and pro-independence elements, has just agreed on local employment protection legislation, soon to be considered by the Congress.

The USTKE’s new political party, focused as it is on Kanak independence desires and related immigration concerns, is likely to wean precious votes away from the mainstream pro-independence, mainly Kanak, FLNKS (Front Liberation National Kanak Socialiste). The FLNKS coalition needs to stay united if it is to continue to wield influence. In the past, the USTKE has been manipulated by pro-France forces precisely to divide and undermine the pro-independence vote. 

There are also local provincial elections, to be held 10 May, the third to be held under the Noumea and Matignon Accords signed by the FLNKS and the pro-France groups to end the violence of the 1980s. These Accords essentially provide for the deferring of any vote on the sensitive independence question until 2014-2018, and establish transitional arrangements including an inclusive collegial government, and a schedule of progressive transfers of powers from the French State to the local government. The 10 May elections will determine the shape of the government which will implement important power transfers in the lead-up to an eventual referendum on independence. 

For France, the success of these elections and implementation of the Noumea Accords are paramount. France has invested heavily in economic and political measures to ensure a democratic transition for New Caledonia to whatever form of government the people decide should prevail after 2018. Senior French representatives are determined to maintain law and order to allow that transition to proceed democratically. So, while France is particularly sensitive at the moment to protests in the Overseas French entities, and will continue to work to head off any contagion of New Caledonia from Guadeloupe, Martinique and Réunion, it knows the stakes surrounding the recent protests in New Caledonia are far higher.

All these questions are important for Australia. The Matignon/Noumea Accords and the day-to-day cooperation between the French State and local groups have allowed for over twenty years of peace, stability, and increasing New Caledonian participation in the life of the region.  As we wrestle with troubles in neighbouring Melanesian states, it is in our interests that the complex processes under way in New Caledonia proceed peacefully.