“Young non-Kanaks have voted ‘yes’ for independence of New Caledonia. And we can convince more of them”

Laure Tindao / François Eïra Kare

Kanak activists

Una urna a la capital de Nova Caledònia.
Una urna a la capital de Nova Caledònia. Author: Senat francès
“Yes” votes to New Caledonia’s independence grew in the second referendum that was held in October in this Pacific country belonging to the French Republic. Pro-independence parties and organizations are now confident to close the 7-percentage point gap by 2022, when a third referendum could be held. Among those who think so are Laure Tindao and François Eïra Kare, two Kanak activists who live in Paris.

Laure Tindao is a PhD candidate at the Languages and Civilitsations of Oral Tradition (LACITO) lab, attached to the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilitsations (INALCO), in Paris. Her PhD project is about the toponyms of the Bangou tribe (Païta), in Drubea, where Naa drubea is spoken. The research project is approached from an anthropological linguistics perspective.

François Eïra Kare is a Kanak pro-independence member and one of the founders of the Movement of Young Kanaks in France (MJKF), based in Paris, where they organise and mobilise the Kanak diaspora in metropolitan France.

Nationalia: Who does support independence and who is against it? Which are the main arguments of each stance?

Laure Tindao: It is important to understand the context, particularly the historical and political context involving France’s colonialist activities in the Pacific, particularly in Kanaky-New Caledonia. What will end up being a claim for independence begins in 1945 with the end of the official “indigenous status” and the access to French citizenship for the indigenous inhabitants of Kanaky-New Caledonia. With the strength of considerable political and electoral representation, the indigenous people built the bases of an autonomist vision in the 1950s. At this point the indigenous people obtained a political majority in the local political institutions. During the 1960s and 1970s, the claim for independence starts to gain momentum in the form of demands tied to indigenous culture, as well as to indigenous lands plundered during colonisation. The 1980s begin with pro-independence parties and organisations reaffirming their demands for independence and denouncing the colonial past and present. The banner of the Kanak people’s demands is carried by the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), the organisation with most support from the Kanak people and also some among the descendants of European colonists (the Caldoches or Caledonians), that FLNKS recognises as victims of history. The arguments for independence are: (1) the recognition of New Caledonia’s colonial status; (2) the existence of an indigenous civilisation and people (the Kanaks) that has its own social organisation and is open to the other components of the country’s population; (3) the right for independence and self-determination; (4) the importance of resources in assuring economic independence; (5) the experience and existence of political and democratic institutions that are particular to Kanaky-New Caledonia.

The political organisations linked to the French conservative right and far-right are those opposing independence. Their sole argument is to maintain –permanently– the relationship of dependency on the colonial metropolis –France. In reality, their principal concern is to once and for all wipe out the demand for independence, and to make the Kanak people and their indigenous legitimacy disappear.

N: What is your understanding of the results of the second referendum in Kanaky-New Caledonia?

François Eïra Kare: The results of the second referendum of 4 October 2020 (46.74% for “yes” and 53.26% for “no”) proves that the independence movement and the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front have reached their goal of reducing the gao between “yes” and “no” in comparison with the first referendum of 4 November 2018 (43.33% for ”yes” and 56.67% for “no”). For FLNKS, what mattered was reaching 90% for “yes” in pro-independence municipalities, along with decreasing electoral abstention and improving the results for “yes” in non-pro-independence municipalities.

L. T.: Personally, as a Kanak woman supporting independence, the results are absolutely satisfactory when considered in the context of a program for the affirmation of the full sovereignty of Kanaky.

N: What is your understanding of the results in relation to the first and third referendums? [The Nouméa Accord establishes the celebration of 3 referendums in 2018, 2020, and 2022.]

«We are optimistic about the third referendum because the result of the second one gives widening possibilities and a margin for negotiations between the FNLKS and the French government»

F. E. K.: We think that the “yes” results in both 2018 and 2020 referendums prove objectively that support for the establishment of full sovereignty and independence is claimed particularly by the Kanaks, but is also a strong political marker for a great number of so-called “Caledonians” [i.e. non-indigenous], whom we consider victims of history who are potentially sympathetic towards the idea full sovereignty for Kanaky-New Caledonia. We are particularly optimistic about the third referendum because the result of the second one (4 October 2020) gives widening possibilities and a margin for negotiations between the FNLKS and the French government about the conditions of a political and institutional transition.

L. T.: In general terms, the Kanak people does not conform a sufficient majority in order to make its voice heard [they are a demographic minority in the archipelago]. But we have observed some changes among the people who voted “yes”. While this was not possible to distinguish or interpret in the first referendum –or it was poorly visible, I think–, the second referendum has clearly indicated that 14,000 non-Kanaks –most of them youths who have just come of age– voted “yes”. This allows us to say that we can still keep moving forward by persistently defending the “yes” programme in order to convince this new wave of voters ahead of the third referendum.

N: What is the colonial legacy in Kanaky-New Caledonia?

L. T.: For the past 30 years the Kanaks –together with the “lights and shadows” of the colonial period– have been recognised by the French state. The Kanaks have been included into the French Constitution as a people, which is unprecedented, as the French Republic is “one and indivisible”. This is a privilege not recognised for the Corsican and Basque peoples, and even less for the Bretons or Occitans. France has recognised the singularity of the Kanak people as a civilisation having its own particular system of social organisation and represented by the Customary Senate and the administrative repartition of the customary territories. From this point on, representatives of the French state, and administrative and political institutions, have had to work within the confines of these formal uses and customs [these customs are a form of civil law derived from French civil law applied in New Caledonia].

N: What does still remain from the colonial times?

L. T.: Specially the colonial trading post economy (économie de comptoir) under the control of the island’s oligarchs and right-wing colonial organisations. Also, the make-up of the electoral corps remains, a political conflict which keeps the colonial system in Kanaky-New Caledonia alive and at the same time makes it visible, which has an impact on the lives of the citizens of New Caledonia.

N: What are France’s interests over Kanaky-New Caledonia nowadays?

«The paradox of the new context is the emergence of a conjunction of FLNKS’s and French interests within the framework of independence in association with France»

L. T.: France’s interests are diminishing because the colonial prestige is no longer a fashion of our era. We are in a period in which France intends to redefine itself and reaffirm its place after 30 years of the Matignon Accords and the Nouméa Accord in Kanaky-New Caledonia. What is really at stake in this period of negotiation is a permanent solution of association between the indigenous people and France. The paradox of this new political context is the emergence of a conjunction of the FLNKS’s and French interests within the framework of independence in association with France.

N: What is the geopolitical role of Kanaky-New Caledonia in the Pacific?

L. T.: The Exclusive Economic Zone and France’s maritime area in the Pacific Ocean amount to an important asset in the 21st century. France has been reaffirming its ambitions within the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean for a long time, especially within the triangle made up by Kanaky-New Caledonia, the territories of Wallis and Futuna, and French Polynesia [the three archipelagos under French rule in the Pacific]. Nevertheless, the affirmation of this power is rather symbolic, as France is nothing in the Asia-Pacific zone compared to Australia, New Zealand, and particularly the Chinese giant, whose impact begins to be felt. As for the military, French power is marginal in this area of the Pacific, if compared to the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.

N: What is the current situation of Kanaky-New Caledonia’s indigenous languages?

«Some Kanak languages are taught at school, but we cannot deny the evidence that all of them are endangered to different degrees»

L. T.: Some 30 Austronesian indigenous languages of the Melanesian branch are found in Kanaky-New Caledonia, plus a French-based creole language, Tayo. These languages are spoken by 75,000 people altogether. We cannot deny the evidence that all of them are endangered to different degrees: some languages have a few dozens of speakers; some others, thousands. This is the case of Shishë, for instance, which according to the ISEE NC census, in 2014 only had 20 speakers. As Melanesian languages, the Kanak languages are related to the other Austronesian languages, a family spoken around the world, from Madagascar to Tahiti.

Most Kanak languages do not have any fixed orthography or standard model. This was one of the purposes for the creation of the Kanak Language Academy in 1998 thanks to the Nouméa Accords. Article 1.3.3 of the accords states that:

“Kanak languages are, together with French, the languages of education and culture in New Caledonia. Their role in education and media must be increased, and needs to be object of a profound reflection. A scientific research and university education programmes need to be established in New Caledonia. The National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilisations will play an essential role […]. A Kanak Language Academy, a local institution of which the directive body will be composed by speakers designated according to the customary laws, will be created. The Academy will establish its working rules and its own evolution lines”.

The recognition of Kanak languages as regional languages started from the Orders of 20 October 1992. These orders introduced 4 languages as a facultative subject in both high school and university levels: Drehu, Nengone, Paicî, and Ajië. Other Kanak languages are taught in elementary and high schools, such as Xârâcùù, Iaai, Fagauvea, Fwâi, Nêlêmwa, Yuanga, Drubea (my mother tongue), and Nââ Kwényï. There are, however, some issues that need to be addressed. Sometimes it is not possible to keep teaching Kanak languages up to high school because of a lack of graduated teachers in these languages. For example, my language, Drubea, is taught in Yaté, but not in my hometown Païta.

N: What does independence mean for the Kanaks and for the future of Kanaky-New Caledonia?

«The establishment of full sovereignty, of independence, means for the Kanaks the end of colonisation and the beginning of a new era»

L. T.: The establishment of full sovereignty, of independence, means for the Kanaks the end of colonisation and the beginning of a new era where the Kanak people will have the responsibility to define, together with the other components of the country’s population, a new constitution that organises new Oceanic democratic institutions. We will also have the opportunity to redefine economic relations and make them more egalitarian throughout the territory of our country. Finally, it also implies the affirmation of a new citizenship, and the preservation of customary territories and different forms of the Kanak social organisation.

N: Both of you belong to the Young Kanak Movement in France (MJKF), a movement supporting the independence of the Kanak archipelago. What are your activities and the focus of the movement’s activities?

F. E. K.: With the introduction of the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) in 1989, the movement for independence disappeared from metropolitan France. It had been previously represented by the GFK, a section of the Kanak Liberation Party (PALIKA). Most of the branches were organised in university cities (Bordeaux, Lyon, La Roche-sur Yon, Strasbourg, Montpellier), but they disappeared at the end of 1989. After the signature of the Matignon-Oudinot Accords, the FLNKS no longer considered it necessary to maintain an official representative body in France. We had to wait until 2009 for the pro-independence and trade unionist activists to start up a new association, the Young Kanak Movement in France (MJKF), which has taken over, together with the anticolonialist movement, the campaign for awareness-raising when it comes to the political situation in Kanaky. The MJKF organises by its own means informative meetings and media appearances discussing Kanaky’s current affairs.

N: Are there any links between the Kanak and the Catalan independence movements?

L. T.: In 2018, in the middle of the campaign for the first referendum, the FLNKS toured around France and Europe in order to explain the stakes. FLNKS’s foreign office representative, Mickäel Forest, met the leaders of the Catalan independence movement, among them Carles Puigdemont. There were also other spontaneous meetings with the Basque and Corsican independence movements, and also with the Scottish movement. I would like to specify that this is the first time in 30 years that the FLNKS has invested in establishing relations with the political sphere of European demands for independence. Earlier, there had only been some contacts with Corsican nationalist, pro-independence, and pro-autonomy organisations.

N: How is the Catalan movement regarded from the Kanak perspective?

L. T.: To the Kanaks’ eyes, Catalonia’s independence movement is seen as a legitimate demand of a people, a history, and a culture, but especially as the consequence of a long experience of autonomy. Demands for independence by European peoples, the case of the Catalan, the Corsican, the Basque, the Irish or the Scottish peoples, are the ones receiving attention. We are however far away from the exotic scenario of independence demands in a distant country. I regret that the FNLKS isn’t taking advantage of the means to reinforce its institutional and political links with European independence movements. We have a lot to learn from Catalan experiences of economic and institutional autonomy.