New Caledonia and the struggle of the Kanak people

New Caledonia has been rocked for several days by riots that have so far claimed six lives. This uprising is the result of repeated provocations by the French imperialist government. In 2022 – after Macron forced through a referendum on independence in spite of his promises to the contrary – we published the article below, in which we wrote: “The French government welcomes the result, but the problem is by no means settled – and is bound to resurface, sooner or later.” Since then, the government has pushed ahead with a process of electoral reform that constitutes a significant provocation for the Kanaks.

[Originally published in French at]

The French imperialist government responded to the anger of the oppressed Kanak people with ferocious repression: sending in military and police reinforcements, arresting pro-independence leaders, supporting armed militias of European settlers, and so on. New Caledonia is an important outpost of French imperialism because of its nickel reserves and its strategic location in the South Pacific.

The reaction of the leaders of the French workers' movement to this ferocious repression is highly inadequate. Mass mobilisations must be organised, to oppose repression and the sending of troops to New Caledonia. The workers‘ movement must give its full support to the Kanaks’ right to self-determination, which can only be achieved through a revolutionary mobilisation of the masses of New Caledonia.

The comments we made in the article below about the policy of the leaders of the Kanak national liberation movement remain perfectly valid. An independent but capitalist Kanaky would immediately fall prey to rival imperialisms in the region, be it from China, Australia or the United States. The struggle for self-determination must be accompanied by a struggle against capitalism and for the establishment of socialism throughout the region. This is the only way to lift the Kanak people out of the misery and oppression into which French imperialism has plunged them.

On 12 December [2021], a referendum held in New Caledonia gave an overwhelming majority (96.5 percent) to those opposed to the territory's independence. The reason for this result is simple: the pro-independence movement had called for a boycott of the vote, to protest against a series of outrageous measures taken by the Macron government. While turnout had been over 80 percent for the last two independence referendums (November 2018 and October 2020), this time it was just 43 percent. The French government welcomes the result, but the problem is by no means settled – and is bound to resurface, sooner or later.

From colonisation to the Nouméa Accords

Inhabited by the Kanak people for nearly three millennia, New Caledonia was colonised by France from 1853. Land was confiscated from the Kanaks and given to settlers. The French occupation provoked fierce resistance. A mass insurrection in 1878 was crushed, with thousands of Kanaks either killed or deported to other French colonies.

With the development of capitalism, New Caledonia became an important source of raw materials for French industry. The territory holds around 7 percent of the world's nickel reserves, a crucial mineral for the electronics industry.

Throughout the 20th century, the economic development of this colony barely translated into improvements in the lives of the Kanaks. In the 1950s, the Kanak people were even officially described as “on the brink of extinction”!

flags Image BeenAroundAWhile Wikimedia CommonsWith the development of capitalism, New Caledonia became an important source of raw materials for French industry / Image: BeenAroundAWhile, Wikimedia Commons

After the Second World War, at a time when many colonies were gaining their independence, a pro-independence movement developed in New Caledonia. From the 1970s onwards, it initially tried to ‘negotiate’ independence with France, but was met with ferocious repression by the police and settler militias. In the 1980s, several pro-independence leaders were assassinated.

Faced with the failure of the ‘legal route’, a new party was created in 1984 to win independence by force of arms: the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS). The FLNKS carried out an increasing number of coups de main and ‘symbolic’ attacks. In response, anti-independence militiamen set up violent ambushes at FLNKS demonstrations, while state repression intensified. Several FLNKS activists were killed by the police.

In 1988, on the island of Ouvéa, the FLNKS attacked a gendarmerie and took some officers hostage. Jacques Chirac's government sent in special forces from Paris. Their intervention and the release of the hostages were accompanied by acts of torture against Kanak civilians and prisoners.

After these bloody events, the FLNKS changed its strategy and agreed to negotiate with Michel Rocard's government. The Matignon (1988) and then Nouméa (1998) accords provided for greater autonomy for New Caledonia, the integration of the FLNKS into the territory's government, and the organisation of several referendums on independence... almost 30 years later! The last of these referendums has just taken place. It marks the failure of the FLNKS’ strategy.

The trap of reformism

The FLNKS went through a process that is very common among national liberation movements. Faced with the inflexibility of colonial power, it turned to a guerrilla strategy. Instead of patiently organising the Kanak population to carry out mass actions and paralyse colonial power, heroic young militants were killed in ‘symbolic’ actions. Faced with the impasse of this strategy, the leaders of the FLNKS switched to reformism, ‘participation’ in government bodies and the search for a negotiated solution with French imperialism.

Guerrilla warfare and reformist ‘legalism’ have one thing in common: these two strategies abandon the idea of organising the mass of Kanaks in a united struggle. These methods favour the action of a small minority, who one day brandish a gun and the next day accept ministerial portfolios. In passing, it should be pointed out that these errors were encouraged by the attitude of the French left on this issue. The leaders of the Socialist Party (PS) and the Communist Party (PCF) sacrificed Kanak self-determination in defence of French imperialism, while many ultra-left organisations unreservedly supported armed adventures.

Today, the FLNKS has reached an impasse. French imperialism does not want to abandon New Caledonia, not least because of its strategic position vis-à-vis Chinese imperialism. The FLNKS leaders no doubt hoped that a massive boycott of the referendum would prompt Paris to open new negotiations. Macron congratulated himself on his ‘victory’ – and considers the matter settled.

To win the right to self-determination, the Kanak national movement will have to abandon reformism and embark on a revolutionary mass struggle. It will have to organise the workers of New Caledonia in order to wage a struggle against French capitalism and the imperialist powers which have their sights set on the territory. As for the French workers' movement, it must support this struggle. Our enemies are the same: French capitalism and imperialism!

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