WHEN I first met Yann Uregai in 1978 he was already a leader of the Kanak Liberation Movement which had just emerged from the underground. A non-violent man who would not talk of waging guerilla warfare, Uregei forecast a violent struggle for New Caledonia’s independence:
‘There will be civil war and the first people to use their guns will be the white settlers from Algeria. They have already formed an action committee against independence.’
Next year is the 130th anniversary of French annexation of the Pacific island group known as New Caledonia. For the Kanaks (the name the indigenous Melanesian people give themselves) the colonial experience has been bitter. They have been oppressed, dispossessed and decimated, becoming a powerless minority in their own land.
Of the population of 140,000, just over 40 per cent are Kanaks, 36 per cent Europeans, 12 per cent Polynesians and the remaining 9 per cent of various national origins. Two thirds of the whites were born in New Caledonia and an increasing number see independence as inevitable. Yet most whites still cling closely to their political and cultural links with France. And many Polynesians, worried about potential Kanak dominance, support the anti-independence movement. In the past five years there have been political killings and New Caledonia is now a political minefield for the French government as it tries to satisfy the aspirations and dampen the fears of a bitterly divided people.
The central problems are land and political power. The Kanaks were systematically robbed of their land and of control over the country’s rich nickel deposits, On the main island, Grande Terre, the territory government owns almost two thirds of the land, a further 25 per cent is in the hands of fewer than 1000 white settlers and the remaining 11 per cent (the least fertile) supports 24.000 Kanaks.
Kanaks have recently overcome divided loyalties and a French gerrymander to gain control of local government, With the support of a small centre party they hold a majority in the legislative assembly. The leading figure is Nidoishe Naisseline, a sociology graduate from the Sorbonne and now high chief of the island of Mare. He has been jailed several times, The first occasion was in March 1972, when he was imprisoned for six months for remarking to a uniformed French administrator: ‘It is not France here. I couldn’t give a damn about your uniform. The man behind it is an imbecile.’
There has been an interesting role reversal between Uregei and Naisseline, When I first met them Uregei was cautious but determined, Now he wants independence as soon as possible. But Naisseline is willing to wait longer, saying that economic independence is as important as political independence and much groundwork remains to be done.
In 1979, when Mitterand and the French Socialist Party were still in opposition, they pledged support for Kanak independence. In power they have moved slowly but recently the pace has picked up. The French government portrays New Caledonia as being in an evolutionary process, with autonomy as the first step. It has recognised the innate right to independence of the Kanak people, proposed a senate of traditional chiefs and declared the aim of encouraging self-determination.
If this promises much for the Kanaks, it will undoubtedly be regarded as a threat by many Europeans and Polynesians. Last year right-wingers reacted to the electoral success of pro-independence groups by storming the legislative assembly and attacking members with clubs. In May this year a crowd of 30,000 marched through the capital city of Noumea (population: 42,000) in a show of anti-independence sentiment directed at the French Minister for Overseas Territories,
The forces of history seem to be swinging in favour of the Kanaks, who say that other racial groups will be welcome in an independent New Caledonia provided - they recognise the Kanaks’ special position, But the chances of a bloodless transition to independence will depend greatly on the Kanaks’ ability to win over Europeans by moderation and on the determination of the French government to stamp out anti-independence. extremism.