Amid the preparations for next year’s referendum on the future of New Caledonia, when the population will decide to either remain a French-run territory or opt for self-rule, political representatives from the Pacific archipelago, situated about 1,200 kilometres east of Australia, met in Paris with French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on November 2nd to finalise the organization of the vote.
In the document setting out the conclusions of that meeting, it was noted that all the parties agreed that the future of the younger generations should be a key theme, “in order to provide concrete and practical answers to local problems”.
New Caledonia’s young, and notably those from the indigenous Kanak population, are the focus of fears of a possible eruption of violence during and after the referendum, which is to be held by next November at the latest. If the high tensions between the Kanaks and the population of European descent have been lessened since the late 1980s, with the introduction by Paris of measures aimed at easing deep social divides, frustrations and resentment remain potentially explosive just under the surface, to a backdrop of acute unemployment, educational failure and youth crime.
The tinder-box was illustrated in October last year, when rioting erupted after a 23-year-old Kanak was fatally wounded by gendarmes when he attempted to escape a traffic control near the capital Nouméa. In the ensuing violence over the following days, there were shooting attacks against gendarmes, vehicles were burned and hi-jacked, and traffic was paralysed by road blockades. The gendarmerie resorted to using armoured trucks to restore order.
As elsewhere, the younger generations in New Caledonia, which became a French colony in 1853, are a diverse and evolving social group, far from the caricatures that are sometimes projected. Despite an overall ageing of the archipelago’s population since the 1980s, explained by an increasing emigration of young qualified adults and students seeking higher education courses, and also a fall in the birthrate, one in two inhabitants is aged under 31, according to 2014 data compiled by the New Caledonia statistics and economic studies institute ISEE.
After the agreement in Paris in November that finalised the holding of the referendum, Prime Minister Philippe made a four-day visit to New Caledonia at the beginning of December to launch the process. On his arrival, he presented the formation of a group of about 50 young people, who he called “ambassadors”, tasked with promoting the referendum throughout the archipelago and encouraging young people to register on the voting lists. But the challenge for this well-oiled PR operation, figure-headed by French judo champion Teddy Riner, is a vast one given the little enthusiasm for local politics displayed by many of the 18-30 age group.
Several reports over recent years have raised the alarm over alcohol and drug abuse among the younger Caledonian population, a situation described in one study published by France’s national institute of health and medical research, INSERM, (in French, here) as “a very high level of alcoholization”. The INSERM report found that an estimated 66% of 16- to 25-year-olds of all communities were regular consumers of cannabis. A 2009 study by the Customary Senate (an assembly of representatives from the eight customary areas of the indigenous Kanak population), which focussed on the marginalization of a section of the Kanak youth, spoke of “children who were losing their way” and turning to “alcohol, cannabis, kava [Editor’s note: a traditional relaxant herbal drink], idleness and a behaviour of addiction”.
The Customary Senate study (available in French here) noted: “Violent acts committed by young people, such as robbery with violence unreasoned violence, are almost all carried out under the influence of alcohol and drugs.” Like the INSERM report, the study raised concerns about the significant enduring inequalities in educational performance and access to employment between the Kanaks, the original ethnic population on the archipelago, and the community whose origins are from European, mostly French, settlers.
Among the older Kanaks, many interpret the problems as the result of the difficult reconciliation of traditional ways of life with modern society. “We had everything that was needed inside the tribe, education, preventive actions, self-sufficiency,” argued Maryka Kapoeri, who heads a militant Kanak association called La Ville dans la tribu. “Today, the youngsters in [the capital] Nouméa have no framework. Some of them are in a self-destructive revolt.”
Many observers describe a young generation which is largely disinterested in the issues involved in the 2018 referendum, as underlined by a report published in March this year by a French parliamentary fact-finding commission which noted that, “The young, notably, appear to be unaware of all, or almost, of what is at stake” (available in French, here).
“The young person appears to be ignorant of the beginning of the political and colonial history of their country, with the intrusion of religion, the spoliation of land, the boom in the nickel business and the penetration of globalization,” said the 2009 study by the Customary Senate. “During electoral periods, however, solicited by many parties, [the young] have the feeling of being used, but also soon forgotten.”
Earlier this month, Mediapart met with diverse members of the younger generation and those who work closely with them, to ask them about what they see as being the stakes of the referendum on auto-determination, and how they envisage the future of the archipelago.