Colonialism is a controversial subject that crops up regularly in France, particularly when a presidential election approaches. This time, conservative candidate François Fillon has called it both “a sharing of our culture” and an “abomination”. Meanwhile independent candidate Emmanuel Macron has said it was “a crime against humanity”, but then found himself apologising to people who had to leave Algeria in 1962 after a bloody independence war.
But no one ever asks indigenous peoples for their point of view. Although there are various United Nations definitions of what constitutes an indigenous people, in this context it is perhaps most pertinent to define them as pre-colonial societies that developed on their own lands and who see themselves as distinct from other parts of the society that now dominates their lands.
Last week, on February 23rd, a commission charged with protecting human rights issued a damning report on France's record towards the indigenous peoples on its territories: the Kanaks of New Caledonia in the South Pacific and the Native Americans of Guiana in South America. In it the National Consultative Commission of Human Rights (CNCDH) remarked: “Taking insufficient account of distinctiveness, a lack of respect for their identity, their culture, their language and their traditions, are sources of serious discrimination.”
In France's overseas territories “we are far from effectiveness in access to the law, to education, to health”, its president, Christine Lazerges, noted in the report. Kanaks and the Native Americans of Guiana are French citizens and should “have access to basic rights like civil status”, she added.
The outcome of this kind of discrimination, plus the shock of the incursion of a consumer society into traditional societies, can be tragic. In 2015 two French senators, green Aline Archimaud and socialist Marie-Anne Chapdelaine, described in a report the “staggering drama of suicide among young Native Americans” in Guiana, among whom the suicide rate is fully 20 times the French average.
This “epidemic” was taking place in “utter silence” 7,000 km from Paris in a region “that shoulders European exploits in the conquest of space”, they told news agency AFP at the time, referring to the fact that the European Space Agency uses France's base in Kourou, Guiana, for rocket launches.
Young Native Americans who leave the Amazonian forest to study in Cayenne or Maripasoula find themselves suddenly cut off from their culture. “We have been deprived of our honour and our humanity. By being classified as a tribe, as Indians, all things we are not, we are not allowed to exist,” Christophe Pieer, a young militant from Camopi, told Mediapart last December. “Every young person in our community knows how to tie a knot to hang themselves.”
That is why one of the CNCDH's first recommendations was that France recognise these indigenous peoples as such. It called on the government to “ratify the International Labour Organisation Convention N°169 from 1989 on indigenous and tribal peoples, the sole legal instrument of constraint guaranteeing real protection to members of indigenous people and notably consecrating a collective right to land”.
The human rights body said the designation of indigenous peoples should be extended to Kanaks and Guiana's Native Americans and that the subject should be brought into the public domain. Other recommendations are more concrete, regarding management of the Guiana Amazonian Park. “Certain jobs should be reserved for local people within the Park: everything involving protecting nature is their area of expertise,” it said.
Protecting nature, a collective right to the land, exploiting resources – this represents progress on a number of sensitive questions in these French territories. And the process of decolonisation continues, with a referendum on self-determination set for 2018 under the 1988 Matignon Agreements. But even so, human rights are still not being respected, the CNCDH said.
In a damning allusion to difficulties in getting on the electoral register for the referendum next year, the CNCDH president explicitly requested in the report that the process be made less complicated. “We understand that fraud must be avoided, but the current process for a young Kanak is too complex. Certain administrative barriers must be lifted,” she said.
Although the human rights body emphasises the universality of human rights and access to legal rights, it remains on the sidelines in the debate about colonisation, calling that “the work of historians”. And when its president calls for the right to education of these indigenous peoples to be made easier, she leaves aside the question of cultural assimilation and whether such access would in fact have a positive effect for them.
- The French version of this article can be found here.
English version by Sue Landau