The French challenge in New Caledonia - GulfToday

The French challenge in New Caledonia

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Police in riot gear seen outside a police station in Noumea, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia, on Saturday. AFP

The Indigenous Kanak, who have been reduced to 40 per cent of the population in the group of islands called New Caledonia ever since France colonised it in 1853, are seeking freedom from France and want the creation of a new nation-state called Kanaky.

The other segments of the population include people of French descent in the islands, called Caldoches, who form 25 per cent of the population. The rest include people from other French possessions in the Pacific including Tahitians and others like the Vietnamese. The third segment is that of the fresh arrivals from France. In 1998, after protests, France had agreed to give political power to the local people after 20 years. There have been three referendums in 2018, 2020 and in 2021. And a majority of the islanders chose to remain with France.

But the Kanaks have been provoked to resort to protests this week because the French parliament passed a law giving voting rights to people who have lived more than 10 years in New Caledonia. The Kanaks see it as an unfair deal to the indigenous people.

The Kanak protests are led by the Coordination Unit for Actions on the Ground (CCAT), who claim that 80,000 people have joined the protests. Opposed to them is the pro-French group, which is a minority in the New Caledonian parliament, called Rally. The pro-independence groups include Kanak and the Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) and other parties. France can rationalise its control over New Caledonia by saying that the referendums do not favour independence, and it has managed to achieve this ambiguous position to manipulating demography which has reduced the Indigenous Kanak to 40 per cent of the population.

Apart from New Caledonia, the other French overseas territories include French Polynesia, Wallis, Futuna and Clipperton in the Pacific region, and Mayotte, Reunion in the Indian Ocean. France stills deems itself a world power though it has lost much of it after the Second World War through de-colonisation.

According to experts, France does not want to give up its claim over New Caledonia because New Caledonia lies between Australia and Fiji, and France feels that it has a role to play in the balance of power game between China and the United States.

New Caledonia might be a small territory with a population of over 300,000 people, but France considers it a strategic territory in the geopolitics of the region. Whatever its ambition and design to remain a world power, it might be difficult for France to resist the demand for freedom by the Indigenous Kanak. France cannot hope to hold on to a colony, a remnant of an old European dominance of Asia and Africa system. The Kanak should rally the other segments of the population to their cause.

France will have to find other ways to play its role as a world power. Like the British Commonwealth, the Francophone countries in Asia and Africa form a solid grouping. But France has been pretty inept in handling its soft power as can be seen from the recent reversals in West Africa in countries like Male, where its military presence was resented. It forced French President Emmanuel Macron to withdraw the French troops.

The fear among French leaders in Paris could be that once New Caledonia becomes free, it will be difficult to keep it in the French sphere of influence. The recent riots have forced France to declare emergency for 12 days, and deploy an additional contingent of 500 troops in Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia where three indigenous and one French man died in the violence that followed the protests. This can only be a provisional response. It cannot be a policy in the long term.

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