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new internationalist
issue 249 - November 1993

Forgotten empire
The sun may eventually set upon the relics of the French empire.
But, as Alastair Bonnett reports, there are some
unexpected twists to the end of the tale.

Some empires never die, they just get forgotten. So it is with the numerous small – and some not so small – French territoires and départements dotted across the world where the tricolour still proudly ripples. From French Guyana to Réunion, from New Caledonia to Tahiti, the colonial era has yet to draw to a close. And, if France has anything to do with it, it never will.

There is an explanation that’s popular with the French government. It runs something like this: Britain bled its colonies dry but France was a nurturing mother. No surprise then that whilst Britain’s enfeebled victims desperately strove for freedom, France’s plump children desired only to remain forever nestled at her milky bosom.

It is a convenient myth for late twentieth-century imperialists but it’s hardly a convincing one. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the South Pacific. In the mid-1950s France had the most progressive policy of any of the powers operating in the region. Back then New Caledonia and French Polynesia were largely self-governing. But with the loss of Algeria Paris was forced to scour the planet for somewhere new to test its atomic bombs. The lucky winner was French Polynesia. The devastation the tests have caused to the cultural and ecological fabric – not to mention the health – of the region eventually provoked an international outcry, led by New Zealand, and prized a temporary moratorium on testing from the Mitterand Government.

However, France’s Pacific colonies have other uses. Ron Crocombe, Professor of Pacific Studies at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, points out that New Caledonia possesses one of the world’s largest nickel deposits. By imposing a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone around its territories France has ‘control of more water than any other nation on earth’. As for the claim that France’s colonial rule is justified by the lack of support for local independence movements, says Crocombe, ‘If the other colonial powers had followed this approach there would not be a single independent country in the Pacific today’.

The indigenous peoples of France’s Pacific possessions seem unwilling, however, to be colonial subjects forever. The Kanak independence movement in New Caledonia (FLNKS) is at present trying to broaden its support-base beyond the Kanaks, who now make up only 42 per cent of the island’s population. Their persistence forced the French government into promising a referendum on sovereignty for 1998. If New Caledonia votes for independence it is likely to be followed by French Polynesia, where politicians in the local capital, Papeete, are already disillusioned with incessant interference from Paris.

But if these Pacific islands are taking the first steps towards freedom, at least one of France’s other possessions still seems unprepared to contemplate separation. Réunion, an island in the Indian Ocean with a population of 600,000, is an increasingly confused and confusing place.

The extraordinary recent rise to power of the Free Dom Party (the ‘Dom’ bit is a play upon the French Départements d’outre-mer) illustrates the point. It is made up of supporters of an illegal TV station, Tl Free Dom, one of the only media outlets on the island where Créole can be spoken and trenchant criticisms made of the Government. When the authorities shut down the station in 1991 widespread rioting broke out in the island’s capital, Saint-Denis, leaving 10 people dead. Elections in March 1993 then swept Free Dom’s leader, French ex-pat and ex-Maoist Camille Sudre, into office as president of the Regional Council.

A mandate for change? Not at all. Far from demanding independence, one of Free Dom’s main platforms was a call for even closer ties to France. With unemployment running at 40 per cent, islanders want the same unemployment benefit and minimum wage levels as in France. Free Dom has pledged itself to make these aspirations a reality.

In the French West Indies economic ruin and independence used to be widely construed as synonymous. But with France’s entry into the European single market things have changed. In Martinique the hit song of the 1990 carnival described in fearsome terms the Grand Méchant Loup, the evil European wolf, waiting to gobble up the economies of France’s Caribbean colonies once the umbilical cord of the colonial economy is severed.

And yet when the sun does finally sink on France’s colonial adventure it will probably be remembered less for its economic failure or machiavellian manoeuvrings than for its devastating cultural impact. Tourists are enraptured by ‘how French’ these shards of empire seem. But Jacqui Drollet, secretary-general of the Ia Mana party in French Polynesia, offers words that will be found in no tourist brochure. ‘Our land has changed hands, we have sold it for a dream. Our power of decision has been taken from us, and all we have got in exchange are a few social welfare benefits.’

Alastair Bonnett is an author whose work includes Radicalism, Anti-racism and Representation (Routledge, 1993).

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New Internationalist issue 249 magazine cover This article is from the November 1993 issue of New Internationalist.
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