By RUWAN MUNASINGHE
On Sunday, Oct. 4, the people of New Caledonia took part in a referendum administered by the government of France on whether to remain a French colony or set themselves on the track to political independence. This was a follow-up referendum from 2018.
New Caledonia is a Pacific territory about 800 miles away from the east coast of Australia and has a population of 270,000. Kanaks—the indigenous Melanesian people of the territory—are the largest ethnic group (about 40% of the population). There is also a somewhat smaller white population, which is concentrated around the capital Noumea. The territory is part of France.
The colonial contradictions are obvious. Kanaks live in poverty. Wealthy white neighborhoods dot Noumea. Kanaks make up 90% of the prison population. The French military is permanently stationed with troops. At the rallies of pro-independence parties, Kanaks wave the Kanak flag. At the rallies of the anti-separatist parties, crowds of whites wave the tricolor of France.
Kanaks overwhelmingly support the ongoing struggle for a free and independent Kanaky (the desired name for the nation once free). The colonial relationship between Kanaks and France has all of the typical features of a national liberation struggle—struggles for land, struggles against white supremacy, struggles for basic democratic rights like the right to education and housing, and the struggle for political self-determination.
In fact, the reason why New Caledonia had a referendum last Sunday has origins in militant struggles in the 1970s and ’80s. Indigenous Kanaks clashed with the government of France in open combat, and Kanaks organized in the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste) threatened to seize power. This led to a series of negotiations, which culminated in an agreement called the “Noumea Acccord” in 1998 under which New Caledonia would be able to have more autonomy. The accord also set up a system in which there would be a series of referendums 20 years in the future on the issue of independence.
Following the Noumea Accord framework, the first referendum on the issue of independence took place across New Caledonia in 2018. The results shocked widespread expectations that votes to reject independence would be overwhelming. The referendum resulted in 44% supporting independence.
This led to the referendum on Oct. 4. With over 80% of the population turning out to the polls, this most recent referendum resulted in 53.3% in favor of the status quo and 46.7% voting in favor of independence. This was widely considered to be another win for pro-independence supporters and the Kanak people in general. There will be another follow up referendum in two years.
In campaigns leading up to this most recent referendum, parties supporting indigenous national liberation and independence blocked together in a coalition. Previously in 2018, one anarchist-influenced party called for abstention from the referendum under the argument that people should not engage in a political process dominated by the colonial apparatus.
Encouragement to other Pacific struggles
If Kanaky is to win independence from France, this could have positive implications for the struggles of other Melanesian peoples. The struggle for self-determination of Papuans in Indonesia has been ongoing and lively in recent years, and a Kanak victory could only encourage the fight in West Papua against the reactionary forces of the Indonesian government. Along with the Tamil Eelam struggle in Sri Lanka, the Kashmir struggle, and the Rif struggle in North Africa, the self-determination struggle of Papuans is an important example of a national liberation fight in a semi-colonial country.
All of this is important for France for many reasons. New Caledonia is a huge nickel producer. Some 25% of the world’s nickel comes from this territory. Of course, none of that wealth is owned by the Indigenous people. Especially in the crisis of COVID-19 and the global economic downturn, French companies are going to want to maintain whatever profits they can from this colony. Any roll back of influence opens up the possibility of greater competition for resources from Chinese imperialism. And French companies would be faced with a fight against Kanaks struggling to nationalize all resources and industry.
Also, the independence of New Caledonia calls into question all of France’s overseas departments. In total, France has 11 inhabited colonies all over the world. In addition to this it holds various territories of uninhabited land. France has an imperialist presence in all of the Earth’s seas and oceans. These colonies are not unimportant. Last year, during the French general strike, the workers of Guadeloupe and Martinique played an important role in the movement, especially in the education sector. In recent months, French Guyana has been in the French news for being one of the areas of France struggling the most due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
One other issue that is worth thinking about is the role of French currency and France’s neocolonial predations. The current currency of New Caledonia is the Pacific franc (PFP franc). A successful fight for an independent Kanaky would inevitably involve a fight to defend Kanaky from French imperial monetary machinations. In our articles on Mali, Socialist Resurgence has explained that the current use of the CFA franc in Francophone West Africa is a part of French imperialism. This same issue is a factor in the independence fight of Puerto Rico against U.S. imperialism.
All of this is relevant for workers in the United States. In less than a month, the largest U.S. colony will face a historic referendum. In Puerto Rico on Nov. 3 there is to be a referendum on whether or not Puerto Rico should be admitted as a U.S. state. Revolutionaries in the U.S. have a responsibility to agitate for workers in this country to actively oppose the ongoing colonial project in Puerto Rico.
The struggle of Kanaks is also an example for Pacific Islanders who live under U.S. imperialism. The colonization of Oceania and the resistance from Pacific Islanders has always been intimately connected to the history of U.S. imperialism. The United States doesn’t hold any colonies that are indigenous to Melanesians specifically but it does hold numerous Pacific colonies indigenous to Austronesians and Polynesians.
From a U.S. perspective, the struggle of Kanaks forces one to consider Hawaii—where indigenous Hawaiians are in an ongoing fight for sovereignty. It also makes one consider Guam, where indigenous Chamoros have been in a long fight for land and rights against the U.S. military occupation of the land.
Struggles in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories
The situation in New Caledonia calls into question all of the territories of the United States, which, in addition to Puerto Rico and Guam, include the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa. The French overseas system demonstrates that, for these U.S. colonies, integration into the Union would not solve or even ameliorate the worst of the ills of colonialism. All of this is related to the oppressed nationalities internal to the U.S. such as Chicanos, African Americans, and especially Native Americans. When learning about the Kanaks, people in the U.S. ought to think about how this is related to Native Americans and the demand for recognition of treaty rights and sovereignty; and how it is related to independent Black political organization.
It reminds us that our call for “reparations for all colonized communities” extends to all of the U.S. colonies (and, on a technical point, extends beyond U.S. territory, as we think the United States owes reparations to countries dominated by U.S. imperialism). It includes Chamorros and indigenous Hawaiian communities that are living under the boot of the U.S. empire.
Whether in Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico, or in the present case of New Caledonia, a referendum of this kind alone is not enough to materialize into a true victory of national liberation. The referendum process is not a process of real decolonization. French imperialism controls the entire referendum system, not to mention the negotiation process that would result from a pro-independence vote. France also obstructs decolonization through contortions in the electoral rules that keep indigenous Kanaks in a minority. Nevertheless, the referendum is being used by Kanak liberation forces to build a movement against all the forces of colonization and imperialism.
This is true of Puerto Rico as well, where the upcoming referendum is non-binding. Legally, only the U.S. Congress can grant statehood to Puerto Rico. Moreover, the referendum is overseen by different wings of the Puerto Rican bourgeoisie (themselves inseparably joined to the U.S. ruling class), who are in favor of Puerto Rico remaining a colony of the U.S. Additionally, pro-colonial forces are funded by a myriad of corrupt interest groups. Yet for revolutionaries, the referendum poses a unique opportunity to oppose colonialism in the open after decades of efforts to try to repress the Puerto Rican liberation movement out of existence.
Ultimately, only the power of the oppressed classes can achieve what a referendum isn’t designed to do—drive the French off Kanaky. And even this would not be the end of the struggle for full rights and genuine sovereignty for Kanaks, as a fight against French neo-colonialism and other competing imperialisms would immediately open up.
As Bolshevik-Leninists we see national liberation struggles of oppressed peoples against imperialism as progressive. And the theory of permanent revolution gives us a unique framework to understand some of these struggles within a context of revolutionary socialist internationalism. For us, struggles of oppressed nationalities are a component part of the global proletarian struggle. As revolutionaries in a settler-colonial state and the most formidable imperialist power on the planet, a fundamental part of our Marxism is the idea that a nation that continues to occupy another cannot itself be made free. For U.S. workers, to side with oppressed nations is to side against the U.S. bourgeoisie—their class enemies.
Furthermore, the success of self-determination and realization of full independence is contingent on the organization and militancy of the oppressed classes against their exploiters. As Leon Trotsky wrote, “The historical weapon of national liberation can be only the class struggle.” Only the working class and their allies are capable of securing meaningful freedom and full rights. Without this class ingredient playing a leading role, there can only be an uneven and incomplete victory. This is, in essence, one of the main ideas of permanent revolution.