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Workers Vanguard No. 1154

3 May 2019

France’s New Caledonia Colony

Independence for Kanaky!

For a Workers and Peasants Government Centered on the Kanak People!

Part One

The following is the first part of an article translated from le Bolchévik No. 226 (December 2018), newspaper of our comrades of the Ligue trotskyste de France, with two minor factual corrections regarding French imperialist machinations in Ivory Coast.

The referendum held on November 4 in New Caledonia resulted in a win for the “no” vote on independence, but with a majority of less than 57 percent. This was a rude awakening for the loyalist partisans of France, who were counting on 10 or 20 percent more. The struggle for independence, which had been put on hold for 30 years prior to this referendum, has been re-ignited due to the narrow margin of the loyalist victory.

Kanak youth, who were said to be indifferent or even increasingly pro-France, in reality mobilized en masse to vote for independence. The lower voter turnout in the Loyalty Islands, which are overwhelmingly pro-independence, shows that some of the Kanak population abstained, not due to indifference but because they justifiably had little faith in the sincerity of a ballot organized by the colonial power. The principal Kanak union, the Federation of Unions of Kanak and Exploited Workers (USTKE), which is well established in the Loyalty Islands, called for non-participation in the ballot because of this.

This referendum marks another dark page for the French left on the colonial question: to our knowledge we are the only ones to have taken a position in favor of a “yes” vote on independence before the referendum. We reprint below, edited for publication, the speech by our comrade Alexis Henri at the October 25 Paris meeting of the Ligue trotskyste de France, in which he showed how LO [Lutte ouvrière, a prominent reformist group in France] distinguished themselves by their hypocrisy and hostility to independence.

LO found themselves to the right of the French Communist Party (PCF), which did express some sympathy for the indépendantistes, even though, as is usual for them, this was mostly for the purpose of promoting a “fair” neocolonial policy from the “country of the Rights of Man.” They wrote that if the “yes” vote were to win, “Our country [France] will also have to define financial relations with the new nation and a close and respectful partnership permitting the economic and social development of the territory-nation” (PCF Declaration, 30 October 2018).

The POID [Democratic Independent Workers Party, disciples of the late pseudo-Trotskyist Pierre Lambert] dodged the question by hiding behind the USTKE. As for the New Anti-Capitalist Party, they took advantage of the differences on the referendum between the USTKE and the other indépendantistes, who were advocating a “yes” vote, to declare: “It isn’t up to us to decide for the Kanak, either about their future or their attitude to the referendum” (l’Anticapitaliste, 25 October 2018). With such a “vanguard,” the Kanak don’t need a rear guard! In contrast, we Trotskyists struggle to mobilize the working class, both here and there, to wrest Kanaky’s independence from the claws of French imperialism, and to forge a revolutionary Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party.

*   *   *

Dear comrades and friends, on November 4 a referendum will be held in Kanaky on the question: “Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?” Unlike the referendum of 1988, which was tied to the approval or not of a new colonial statute, this time the question is clearly posed and our call is to vote “yes.” Even if the “no” vote wins, we base ourselves on the Kanak struggle of more than a century and a half against French occupation in order to make a clear call for immediate independence, whatever the outcome of this referendum and subsequent ones planned for 2020 and 2022. We are for driving French imperialism completely out of the Pacific.

Independence would be an enormous step forward for the Kanak people and all the workers and oppressed of this archipelago. It would be a defeat for French imperialism, and therefore favorable for the class struggle here in France. The most eloquent precedent in this regard is Algerian independence, which opened the way for [the pre-revolutionary events of] May ’68, as we explained in le Bolchévik (No. 225, September 2018).

At the same time, we are very aware that independence alone is not sufficient to emancipate Kanaky from imperialist capitalist domination and oppression. We can see how French imperialism today continues to look for ways to “punish” neighboring Vanuatu (formerly “New Hebrides”) for having freed itself from the direct tutelage of France and Britain in 1980.

This is why our perspective for Kanaky is for a workers and peasants government centered on the Kanak people. Such a government would be very conscious of the vital need to extend the revolution to the imperialist centers of the Pacific—that is to say, Australia, Japan and the United States—as well as the former French colonial power. This is the perspective of Trotsky’s permanent revolution.

Kanak People’s History of Anti-Colonial Struggle

The Kanak people have hardly ever stopped struggling against the occupation of their country by French forces. The “taking possession” of the island in 1853 was marked by innumerable revolts over the years, generally drowned in blood. Of particular note was the revolt of 1878, led by Great Chief Ataï, which halted the colonists’ land-grabbing for more than 15 years.

Louise Michel, one of the surviving heroes of the Paris Commune of 1871, who had been deported to New Caledonia, famously solidarized with the revolt. We have to insist on the point that she was quite alone in this at the time. The French workers movement, which was just beginning to revive itself after the massacre of the Communards, has a sordid history on the colonial question, except for the period of the early Communist Party in the 1920s, which was born out of the Russian Revolution of October 1917. I will return shortly to this question, including to the LTF’s own serious deviations during the 1980s.

The French state profited from each defeat of the Kanak, carrying out new massacres and seizing the land of those they defeated. They took practically all the coastal plains and valleys to gradually “confine” the Kanak in “reserves” made up of the most mountainous and infertile lands, barely 8 percent of the area of Grande Terre [the main island].

In April 1917, a new revolt broke out in the North of the country, specifically against conscription for the [World War I] European battlefields. Once more, the French colonial troops carried the day. Around 300 Kanak were killed. In the 1920s, forced labor, which was already in effect throughout the French colonial empire, was systematized in Kanaky.

At the end of the 1920s, after three-quarters of a century of France’s “civilizing mission,” the Kanak population was half, or even by some estimates a quarter, of what it had been a century earlier; they were less than 30,000. The colonial administration seriously considered the outright disappearance of the Kanak people. There was not one single Kanak doctor, or even a high school graduate.

The Kanak people didn’t have the right to leave the reserves, except for tightly monitored work purposes. The colonial administration grouped the clans into “tribes” created arbitrarily in line with their confinement in the reservations, and named tribal “chiefs” who were to serve as go-betweens, in defiance of rules prevalent among the Kanak on the authority of clan chiefs.

However, the Kanak continued to resist their annihilation. During World War II, New Caledonia represented a strategic prize in the Pacific. For two years, it was one of the principal American military bases, with tens of thousands of soldiers permanently stationed there. Our U.S. comrades have written extensively on the racism against blacks in the army at that time, but for the Kanak, the treatment of black American soldiers compared favorably to the iron rule of the French. The only example in which the French imperialists showed themselves to be less reactionary, or more hypocritical, than their meddlesome American allies was their refusal to have brothels racially segregated!

For the first time, thousands of Kanak had access to steady jobs in order to serve the logistical needs of the American troops. At the end of the war, the French colonists were no longer able to reimpose the medieval practice of forced labor. Having seen the infrastructure deployed by the American army, the Kanak were now conscious that the Gaullists [postwar rulers of France under General Charles de Gaulle] were pathetic losers by comparison.

In addition, there was an exponential growth of the Communist Party among the Kanak, thanks to the work of Jeanne Túnica y Casas, who promised them complete equality with whites, even if it remained in the framework of the chauvinism of the tricolor [French flag]. But Túnica y Casas had to take refuge in Australia after her house was blown up (quite possibly by the French state, even while the PCF was in government). Usually at loggerheads, Catholic priests and Protestant clergy united against the Communist danger, everywhere pushing the idea that Communists would take the remaining Kanak land away from them. This is the origin of the Caledonian Union, a party which had a base among the Kanak because it stood for their greater participation in public affairs and put forward some social measures in their favor.

In the 1950s, the increasing entry of the Kanak into the proletariat, including in the nickel mines and refineries, marked the birth of the trade-union movement out of the struggle for wage equality for all the different ethnicities. From this period, the Kanak won the right to vote, at least on paper. It is hardly accidental that many are still not registered.

Following the Gaullist coup d’état of 1958, the Métropole [European France] reclaimed strict control of New Caledonia. The Gaullists wanted to maintain control of the nickel industry from Paris, and they went back on autonomy provisions that had been decreed by Defferre [minister for “Overseas France”] in 1956 during Guy Mollet’s [Socialist Party (SP)] government. (This was during the period of France’s war against Algerian independence.) Right-wing reaction struck the Kanak and the pressure on their lands intensified. In response, a new wave of struggle began to build. This was a direct product of May ’68. Caledonian students in France, both black and white, became radicalized as a result of the massive general strike. This was the Red Scarves movement. Another group called itself the “1878 Group” in memory of the great revolt led by Chief Ataï.

All this ferment gradually pushed the Caledonian Union (UC) toward becoming pro-independence. Most of the white broussards [rural Caldoches (long-term European inhabitants), many of them cattle ranchers] left the party. In 1981, its president Pierre Declercq, a French-born left-wing Catholic, was assassinated by loyalists. The UC found itself at the heart of an Independence Front.

Obviously, the vague, deceptively soothing declarations of [then SP president François] Mitterrand on the destiny of the Kanak had nothing to do with any sympathy for their liberation. Mitterrand had been with the Cagoule [“Hooded Men”] fascists in the 1930s, and then in the [Nazi collaborationist] Vichy government. He was also the very man who in the early 1950s succeeded in “turning” Ivory Coast political leader Houphouët-Boigny, who was a deputy of the RDA [African Democratic Rally], allied to the French Communist Party. Houphouët went on to become the pillar of Françafrique [French neocolonial policy in Africa]. Mitterrand, the personification of French Algeria, as minister of police and minister of the guillotine during the Algerian War, had the blood of innumerable Algerian militants on his hands.

The Independence Front, renamed the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), boycotted the colonial elections of 1984. The secretary-general of the UC, Eloi Machoro, made a famous and heroic gesture, smashing a ballot box with an axe. Mitterrand quite simply had him assassinated later by a commando of GIGN [elite French police] killers, all the while inflaming French chauvinism by making everyone believe that it was a plot by perfidious Albion [Britain] and Australian subjects of Her Majesty to drive France out of the Pacific.

The Kanak revolt lasted several years. The Kanak suffered dozens of dead, killed by racist broussards and/or the forces of the French state. I don’t have the time here to go into more detail on the uprising, but I will say that the turning point was the Ouvéa massacre on the Loyalty Islands, where 19 Kanak were slaughtered—some of them in cold blood—by French special forces who stormed their cave hideout.

This massacre took place in the midst of the 1988 presidential election in France. The blood of the Kanak contributed to the defeat of [Prime Minister Jacques] Chirac. Unfortunately, the chauvinism of the French left meant that his defeat in the end simply contributed to the re-election of Mitterrand, with [Michel] Rocard as prime minister, who became one of the mentors of [current president Emmanuel] Macron.

Rocard knew how to wave the carrot as a complement to the bloody violence that the Kanak had just suffered. This carrot was the Matignon Accords, under the terms of which the FLNKS was offered the management—within the colonial framework—of the two majority-Kanak regions. The North Province afterwards obtained rights to the Koniambo mine complex and the promise of a refinery for the ore. But in fact, the Nouméa region and nickel production by the Société Le Nickel, the island’s main mining company for a hundred years, remained fully in the hands of French imperialism. The Kanak were also promised that a vote on self-determination would take place in ten years, in 1998. At the end of that ten-year period, it was Jospin [Socialist Party prime minister] in France (with the PCF again in the government) who negotiated a new postponement of a vote for 20 years, up until the present.

Nature of the November 4 Ballot

Now, 20 years later, the FLNKS has declared that independence is just around the corner and professed their optimism that the “yes” vote would win at the referendum. The opinion polls categorically deny such a prognosis, and six months ago I was struck by the unshakeable confidence that a pro-colonialist newspaper like Figaro had placed in the forthcoming result of the ballot.

The USTKE, the principal union organizing the Kanak, and the second on the archipelago after the Federation of Unions of Workers and Employees of New Caledonia, which is linked to the [French trade-union federation] CFDT, is calling for non-participation in the referendum. They held several meetings in Paris and at the [French CP’s] l’Humanité Fête to explain their position.

For the USTKE, it is not a genuine referendum for self-determination in the sense that 20,000 Kanak are not even on the electoral rolls, while on the other hand thousands of colonists have been registered in the course of different revisions of the lists. In theory, in line with the accords signed in 1988 by the FLNKS, more or less only those who have been residents of New Caledonia since at least the 1980s, and their descendents, would have the right to vote. This therefore included the entire layer of Europeans brought in en masse by the Gaullist government at the end of the 1960s and early ’70s at the time of the “nickel boom,” which was explicitly intended to make the Kanak a minority population.

But as a matter of fact, the USTKE has shown that each time the Kanak pressed for their whole population to be actually registered, the government reopened the lists, and it was always the métropolitains [French-born residents] and other persons having so-called “material and moral interests” in New Caledonia who were added. The USTKE estimated that 6,000 to 7,000 such voters were improperly added. As a result, this long-time colonial tampering has made the Kanak a minority in a referendum that concerns their own destiny.

These denunciations by the USTKE are absolutely credible. We have no doubt of the deceit carried out by the French state, which uses all possible means to hang on to its colonial possessions. Joseph Andras also reports, in his recent book Kanaky, that there were pro-independence Kanak who refused to register on the list for the referendum since they considered that the whole ballot was a masquerade aiming to give a democratic face to colonial domination. However, to the extent that we can judge from afar, the situation is very different from the 1987 ballot organized by Chirac, when all of the Kanak pro-independence organizations called for abstention. Then, there was a 98 percent “no” vote regarding independence in a completely fake ballot marked by the near-total abstention by the Kanak.

The USTKE fears that if Kanak people participate, French imperialism will claim that the Kanak themselves contributed to the very strong result expected from the “no” vote and that this would show that they wish to remain French. Certainly, in any colonial conflict, there is also a layer of loyalists. But the reality is that a significant section of the Kanak want to take part in the vote, and doubtless there are some who believe in the promises of the FLNKS that the “yes” vote can win.

However, there are also some who don’t have these kinds of illusions but wish to take advantage of the first opportunity given to them to give voice to independence, even if the result is a foregone conclusion. In his book, Joseph Andras cites veterans of the struggles of the 1980s who, this time around, absolutely want to vote. There are also Kanak who fear an overwhelming victory for the “no” vote and for that reason want to vote “yes.” That is why we think that not only can one vote “yes” despite the electoral cheating of French imperialism, but that it is an opportunity to take a stand for independence.

In any case, even if the “no” vote wins, we would not conclude that the Kanak people have freely chosen their chains and that it would be necessary to respect this result. We will continue to call for immediate independence for Kanaky, including if the two additional referendums projected for 2020 and 2022 continue to give a clear victory to colonialism.

French Imperialist Maneuvers to Stay in Power

This is, in short, the whole problem of referendums organized by a colonial power. Even when they are carried out in the framework of a growing struggle for independence, they are inevitably biased in favor of colonialism, independent of the problem of the electoral rolls. For a fair referendum, the prior withdrawal of all French imperialist troops would be necessary. Algeria’s independence referendum was held on 5 July 1962, after the French troops had been driven out. In the same way, in Crimea, the population was able to express its predominantly Russian identity in a referendum only after the withdrawal of the Ukrainian troops and under the protection of Russian troops.

Quite to the contrary, France sent thousands of extra cops and soldiers, supposedly to make voting conditions safe. Moreover, Macron had just reshuffled his government, naming as overall head of the police forces a man who was sub-prefect in Iparralde (Northern Basque Country) from 2010 to 2012, right in the middle of [the Basque separatist] ETA’s disarmament. The man chosen to run the political police (the “DGSI”) made his mark coordinating police repression in Corsica. This brings to mind Pasqua, Chirac’s police minister in the 1980s, who said that “Defense of Bastia [a Corsican city] begins in Nouméa.” The French bourgeoisie professes its confidence in the referendum but holds the truncheon and the gun at the ready. We say: French soldiers, cops and gendarmes out of Kanaky!

But the French bourgeoisie has other, more cunning, means to influence the situation in its favor. Since the 1980s it has increased the economic dependence of the archipelago on French state subsidies. First place in the colony’s economy goes not to nickel but to financial transfers from Paris, notably the payment of public servants.

These functionaries, often of French origin, receive substantial colonial subsidies as expatriates, notably those designed to compensate for the high cost of living. Under this system, France artificially maintains the nominally high salary levels that make New Caledonia appear like a haven of very high GDP per inhabitant in comparison to the rest of the Pacific region, owing to the fact that the CFP (the colonial money in circulation) is tied to the euro. This helps to maintain the fear that the standard of living would collapse in the case of independence. (In reality, French money leaves the Hexagon [France] briefly at best, since a good part is deposited in French banks, and another part serves to import goods and services provided by French businesses.)

An additional consequence of the high level of nominal salaries and prices is that profits are higher for imports than for local products. All this is designed to maintain and reinforce economic dependence on Paris.



Workers Vanguard No. 1154

WV 1154

3 May 2019


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Forge a Leninist-Trotskyist Party! For a Black-Centered Workers Government!


France’s New Caledonia Colony

Independence for Kanaky!

For a Workers and Peasants Government Centered on the Kanak People!

Part One