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The colonial-era inequalities that fuelled the New Caledonia crisis


(This May 23 story has been corrected to say that 50% of the Kanak population live in Noumea, not 50% of the Noumea population is Kanak, in paragraph 13.)

By Layli Foroudi

PARIS (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron said on a visit to New Caledonia on Thursday that inequalities had widened on the French-ruled Pacific archipelago and were a driving force in the deadly civil unrest that broke out last week.

The island territory is marked by deep disparities in education and employment, according to census data and experts on New Caledonia, despite equal opportunities policies that were part of past political agreements in the 1980s and 1990s.

The poverty rate among indigenous Kanaks, the largest community, is 32.5%, compared to 9% among non-Kanaks, according to the 2019 census.

Apparently referring to past efforts at widening opportunity, Macron said on Thursday that “rebalancing has not reduced economic and social inequalities, they have even grown.”

He made the remark in a speech announcing that he would seek a broad agreement on a contested electoral reform, which sparked the violent protests, as well as on the organisation of government on the island, and on inequality among other issues.

The voting reform, which Macron said he will push back by several weeks, would allow thousands more French residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years to vote, diluting the vote of the Kanak, who make up 41% of the population.

The protests, in which at least six people died, were born out of a “social anger, which is rooted in a feeling of colonial dispossession that lasts until now,” says Benoit Trepied, sociologist specialised on New Caledonia at the EHESS, the French school for advanced studies in social sciences.

France colonised New Caledonia in 1853 and made it an overseas territory in 1946, granting rights to Kanaks.

Only 8% of Kanaks hold a university degree and 46% hold no high school diploma. Meanwhile, 54% people of European background are university educated, with that proportion falling to 24% among people of mixed-heritage, the 2019 census shows.

France generally does not collect ethnic statistics, but does so exceptionally for New Caledonia.

“There is looting and ransacking, but we have a population that is on the margins of society, they have no work, nothing to eat, they’re failing at school, they live in slums, and then next to that you have the rich neighbourhoods,” said Dominique Fochi, secretary general of the pro-independence Caledonian Union that opposes the electoral reform but called for peaceful protest.

“It is a people that is fighting for its dignity.”

Social inequalities are particularly acute in the capital Noumea, where Kanaks were not allowed to live until 1946 but now 50% of the Kanak population live in the city, says Trepied.

There are chic neighbourhoods where many well-off white residents live, as well as slums inhabited by Kanaks who lack affordable housing.

In his speech, Macron added that the social inequalities had led to the emergence of an “unprecedented and disinhibited racism over the last 11 days,” without giving details.

In the last week, some anti-independence politicians have described the revolts as “anti-white racism” and that opposition to the electoral reform was fuelled by a “racist discourse”.

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