Australian media seem to have some blind spots concerning our near neighbours. Disasters are always newsworthy, so the Tongan ferry sinking got plenty of coverage. Last week’s Pacific Islands Forum drew a few stories as well, despite the lack of colourful shirts.

But unless you happen to watch the French news of a morning on SBS, you’ve probably missed the unrest in New Caledonia over the last two weeks, in which two police were shot and many more injured in clashes with pro-independence unionists. (There was a brief report in last Wednesday’s SMH.)

Last time New Caledonia erupted, in the late 1980s, there was no chance of missing it: violence between indigenous supporters of independence and pro-French European settlers claimed dozens of lives and severely damaged the territory’s economy. But the shock of bloodshed seemed to bring both sides to their senses, and a peace agreement in 1988 – renewed ten years later in the Noumea accord — has provided stability and a promised referendum on independence after 2013.

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This week’s violence originated with a dispute between state-owned Air Caledonie and the indigenous trade union USTKE, and followed the jailing of one of its leaders over an attack on Noumea’s domestic airport in May. Most reports have played down the political context of the dispute, but USTKE appears to be chanelling frustration among young indigenous workers with lack of economic progress.

The strikers do not seem to have attracted broad support, and it is easy to dismiss them as a splinter group of the main independence movement. But major conflicts have often begun with a small band of extremists: witness the independence struggles of Ireland and Algeria.

On Friday it was reported that an agreement had ended the dispute, but a later report quoted UTSKE saying the strike “has only been suspended” and that “it will take further action of a kind yet to be determined.” In any case, it would be unwise to forget the continuing tension that has been on display.

Nor is New Caledonia the only French territory to have experienced unrest this year: Guadeloupe, in the West Indies, was paralysed by a six-week strike in February-March. There also, economic issues were the touchstone, but questions of ethnicity, national identity and self-determination were never far away.

Colonial projects nearly always fall into one of two categories: either the indigenous population remains a large majority, with the colonists confined to a small elite (as in most of Africa), or the colonists overwhelm the original inhabitants, reducing them to a permanent minority (as in Australia and most of the Americas). New Caledonia is one of the few places in the middle group, where colonists and natives are fairly evenly balanced.

It’s impossible to fully satisfy the demands of both sides, and the question of independence doesn’t easily admit of compromise – a country ultimately is either independent or it isn’t. But the Noumea accord offered hope of a peaceful and gradual transition that most New Caledonians could accept.

Let’s hope that prospect is still alive after last week.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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