“France is seen as a colonial state and any action it takes appears to be illegitimate”

“France is seen as a colonial state and any action it takes appears to be illegitimate”
“France is seen as a colonial state and any action it takes appears to be illegitimate”

INTERVIEW – Geographer Laurent Chalard sees in the riots hitting New Caledonia a sign of distrust of the central State, against a backdrop of communitarian logic.

Laurent Chalard has a doctorate in geography from Paris IV-Sorbonne University and works at the European Center for International Affairs.


LE FIGARO. – Stores destroyed, houses burned, shooting with large caliber weapons: “fairly unprecedented” violence, according to the authorities, was unleashed in the night from Monday to Tuesday in New Caledonia, before the vote of deputies on a revision constitutional decried by the separatists. What is the name of this angry movement? Can it be explained by the constitutional reform project in New Caledonia alone?

Laurent CHALARD. – The riots which took place in Nouméa, the capital and most populous commune of New Caledonia, and its outskirts can be considered as a movement of nationalist pride, on the part of an indigenous people, the Kanaks, a demographic minority in its territory of origin (41.21% of the population declared in the 2019 census), whose socio-economic situation appears degraded compared to the other large community of the archipelago, the “Caldoches”, mainly of European, which controls the main economic levers. Indeed, the Kanak separatists consider that remaining ad vitam aeternam within France, following the result of the three referendums on independence held between 2018 and 2021, will only strengthen their position as “dominated” in Caledonian society, with the long-term risk of a loss of their identity, if the process of diversification of the population were to continue, making it, in certain aspects, a populist movement.

Read alsoNew Caledonia, a turbulent history for a century and a half

As in many other movements of anger, the constitutional reform project in New Caledonia is not the only driving force behind the protest, but it constitutes the (big) straw that breaks the camel’s back. These riots are a continuation of the persistence of significant socio-economic inequalities between communities, all the more perceptible in Greater Nouméa, where, due to a significant rural exodus from the north of the main island of the archipelago, Grande Terre, Kanaks and Caldoches now coexist in the same town. This, with marked contrasts in wealth between districts, in particular between the disadvantaged north (including the commune of Dumbéa) and the affluent south (such as the Baie des Citrons district in Nouméa), as in the large metropolises of hexagon, sources of tension. In this context, violence serves as an outlet for Kanak youth, who are partly marginalized.

Since May 4, the separatists have increased their actions as part of the “Ten days for Kanaky” operation. They oppose the reform of the Constitution which follows the three referendums on independence won by the “no” camp between 2018 and 2021. Should we see this as a broader form of distrust with regard to the vote democratic, and by extension of the State? Is it seen as illegitimate?

Indeed, although the first two referendums on independence, having led to a victory for the “no”, took place in conditions respecting international democratic rules, the third was boycotted by the separatists, officially due to the context of health crisis, but more likely because they feared another defeat. So, from 2021, there was a questioning of the democratic process of self-determination, which is based on the thorny question of the electorate. Indeed, depending on its composition, the final result may turn out to be different. However, the separatists have always suspected manipulation on the part of the central State of the electoral body to their disadvantage, leading to ensuring a victory for remaining in the French republic during the political consultations. This distrust has persisted since the Ouvéa incidents of spring 1988, causing the French state to be suspected, rightly or wrongly, of doing everything to prevent New Caledonia from gaining independence.

It is one of the symbols of the weakening of State authority, the collective interest, understood as that of the majority, making less and less sense in increasingly individualist and communitarian societies.

Laurent Chalard

For the hardest fringe of separatists, relying on the UN inclusion of New Caledonia on the list of non-autonomous territories in 1946, France is a colonial state and, as a result, any action that he commitment, however democratic it may be, appears to be illegitimate. For them, only a referendum organized by them and following their own determination by the electorate would have validity. As a result, the latter systematically oppose the decisions of the central Parisian government in this area, such as the current constitutional reform project.

Can we compare, in a certain way, this distrust with that expressed against the A69 linking Castres to Toulouse or the protests against Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport?

Even if the context is totally different, in the sense that the demands of these two protest movements against transport infrastructures are officially ecological, their point of similarity concerns the rejection of the functioning of the democratic system. The State’s decision-making, which is very standardized in the field of territorial planning, is considered illegitimate by certain individuals, who subsequently authorize themselves the right to exercise violence to achieve their end, that is- i.e. pushing back political leaders. If the phenomenon is not new (fight in Larzac in the 1970s against the extension of a military camp, mobilization against the establishment of a nuclear power station in Plogoff in 1980), the multiplication of cases appears worrying because, in a certain way, there is a form of legitimization of violence by minority groups, who no longer recognize the authority of the central State. It is one of the symbols of the weakening of State authority, the collective interest, understood as that of the majority, making less and less sense in increasingly individualist and communitarian societies.

Is this feeling stronger in New Caledonia than elsewhere? For what ?

In New Caledonia, the feeling of distrust towards the central State is much stronger than in other territories because we are in an ethnicized problem, where a group, the Kanaks, who consider themselves to be the people legitimate, is opposed to another group, the Europeans, whose interests he suspects the central State of prioritizing.

Read alsoIn Nouméa, Macron’s plea for French New Caledonia

While in conflicts against the construction of transport infrastructure, the legitimacy of the State is contested on a single project, in New Caledonia, it is in all areas. This is not so much a questioning of constitutional reform as of the fact that the French state can legislate on the subject. The communitarian logic therefore plays an important role, especially as it intersects with a socio-economic logic. When the two go hand in hand, tensions are generally very high.

Doesn’t the State also have some responsibility?

The French state also has some responsibility in the situation in the sense that it has not shown itself to be particularly attached to maintaining New Caledonia in the French Republic, contrary to the old Gaullist perspective. Our leaders did not rush to declare their love for the archipelago and its inhabitants during the independence referendum campaigns between 2018 and 2021! Indeed, since the arrival of Emmanuel Macron to power, the ultra-liberal tropism of our leaders has given rise to a new trend within the elites, leading them to want to disengage from territories which pose problems or which constitute a burden. for the central State, which is the case for many overseas territories. However, this attitude is perceived as a sign of weakness by foreign countries, for whom France is a middle power in difficulty, whose geopolitical decline on the international scene in a few years is impressive and, barring an unexpected recovery, is probably intended to accelerate. Wanting to make the State slim at all costs, the ultra-liberals of Paris, with strong Anglo-Saxon inspiration, ended up making French power slim…

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