On Thursday May 3rd, President Emmanuel Macron touched down in New Caledonia for a three-day visit to this French overseas territory in the Pacific Ocean. The visit is seen an an important one for the future of New Caledonia and its Kanak people, coming six months before the referendum on full independence taking place on November 4th.
But the visit also coincides with important and unhappy anniversaries of the region's recent past. On May 5th it will be exactly 30 years since the deaths of two gendarmes and 19 Kanak rebels in a bloody siege on the island of Ouvéa. This followed the kidnapping of 31 gendarmes by the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) who held them hostage in a cave, while demanding talks with the French government over independence for New Caledonia. Four gendarmes had been killed by the group when they snatched the hostages. It has been claimed that a number of the kidnappers were shot dead after they had been detained.
Then, almost exactly a year later, on May 4th, 1989, as Ouvéa prepared to lift official mourning after those tragic events, two nationalist leaders Jean-Marie Tjibaou and Yeiwéné Yeiwéné were killed by a separatist who felt the two men had betrayed the cause by agreeing to a peace process with the French authorities.
Both events still cast a long shadow over today's politics in the archipelago. Anthropologist Alban Bensa, a specialist on New Caledonia and the Kanak peoples, wrote recently in L'Humanité Dimanche weekly magazine that “beyond the tragedy that could have been avoided [Ouvéa] encapsulates all the elements of the Caledonian question that arise today”. Meanwhile journalist and director Walles Kotra, director of the overseas service at public broadcaster France Télévisions, describes Ouvéa as “a wound which was so violent it has forced us to open up new avenues with the state and between ourselves. We had to rise above ourselves.”
The presence of the president of the French Republic on Ouvéa on May 5th, exactly thirty years after the bloody massacre in the caves, will therefore be closely scrutinised. This is not just because Emmanuel Macron will be the first president to visit the site, despite reservations expressed by Kanaks related to those who were killed in the assault in 1988. It is also because what happened, on two occasions, on this small atoll north of the main island Grande Terre, provides a structure and a backdrop both to the institutional process that is currently underway and the current political differences.
“This memory remains really sensitive and not just on the Kanak side,” says the director Mehdi Lallaoui, currently in Ouvéá to continue the documentary work he began with his film, Retour à Ouvéa.
But if the history of Ouvéa has an influence on the decisive events in New Caledonia today, it is not just because of the drama of May 5th, 1988, which occurred between the two rounds of the French presidential election involving the incumbent socialist president François Mitterrand and his conservative prime minister Jacques Chirac.
This former pastor and FLNKS member, a leading figure from the Gossanah tribe in New Calaedonia and sometimes considered as the mentor of the group who kidnapped the gendarmes, had opposed the peace accords and amnesty brokered by the French prime minister's office after the Ouvéa killings of 1988. Wéa was himself killed by Tjibaou's bodyguards in the ensuing shoot-out.
These murderous episodes are constantly replayed over and again despite, and perhaps also because of, the work carried out in New Caledonia to come to terms with its past. These echoes of the past carry even more weight because the memorial ceremonies on the archipelago are not formal and institutional, and instead blend the political with the informal. An example are the sketches performed again and again by pupils at the École Populaire Kanak primary school on Ouvéa, telling the tragic story of events at what was known as Gossanah Cave.
At the forefront of these past traumas is the relationship between the French state and the Kanaks. As Mehdi Lallaoui says “though being able to speak out gives a sense of structure to Kanaks, this has been confiscated, kidnapped, buried with the amnesty”. He continues: “In spite of the amnesty laws, some ask whether we can go back over what happened, in particular revisit the cold-blooded killings of the wounded and the young despite the fact they had surrendered.”
However, even though there are defiant voices in both camps, the institutional process triggered after the bloody events of Ouvéa did manage to bring an end to a period of violence that had occurred between 1984 and 1988, marked by deaths on both sides and a creeping militarisation across the archipelago.
The Matignon-Oudinot accord of 1988 was followed by the Nouméa accord of 1998. This provided for the implementation of “negotiated decolonisation”, arranged for the transfer of political, institutional and economic powers and forged the conditions for a “common destiny” that would form the basis of Caledonan citizenship. This process has finally culminated in the holding of an independence referendum in November which will ask the following question: “Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?” It requires a straight yes or no answer.
However, the calming of relations between the Kanaks and the French state is not just down to the institutional process started by the socialist government of the prime minister Michel Rocard after 1988 and pursued since then. It is also the result locally of a long and constant work of recognition and forgiveness between the families of the separatists and gendarmes. One notable result of this work was the ceremony that took place on April 22nd this year, and which started the commemorations that will end on Saturday May 5th.
April 22nd marked the thirtieth anniversary of the initial attack on the gendarme post at Fayaoué on Ouvéa which led to the deaths of four gendarmes and the kidnapping of many more, who were then taken to the cave as hostages and held during the siege.
The ceremony took place in front of a remembrance stone dedicated to Edmond Dujardin, Daniel Leroy, Georges Moulié and Jean Zawadzki, the four gendarmes killed, as well as Régis Pedrazza and Jean-Yves Veron, two soldiers from the 11th Parachute Regiment who died during the later assault to free the hostages. Side by side in front of the memorial were Jean-Marie Dassule, a former gendarme and president of the April 22nd Committee which was set up to keep alive the memory of the military personnel who fell that day in 1988, Macky Wéa, a representative of the Gossanah tribe and Djubelly Wéa's brother, and Alexandre Wallepe, who was part of the separatist Kanak group which carried out the attack on the gendarme post.
Each official speaker on that day was anxious to talk about the blood spilled by all of those involved, the gendarmes, soldiers and separatists. “Every death must be included,” declared Jean-Marie Dassule. “Even if I represent the gendarmes' families, there are also the families of the 19 [separatists], the mothers...a mother's suffering is the same whether she's on the gendarme or the island side.”
Dasulle then highlighted a sentiment that is widely shared across the archipelago. “These are events from which no one emerged the winner. But they triggered a process which said 'never again!' and which has guided Caledonia for thirty years.”
Sitting at the heart of a constitutional, institutional and political process that is unprecedented in the history of France and its former colonies, and of ceremonies that are part of Kanak traditions, the bloody events of Ouvéa in 1988 have thus started to move towards some kind of resolution. Even if the fear that weapons might yet still have a say if the November referendum says 'no' to independence has not quite gone away.