‘France lost the plot’ – journalist David Robie on Kanaky New Caledonia riots

‘A subversive in Kanaky’: An article about David Robie’s first arrest by the French military in January 1987
‘A subversive in Kanaky’: An article about David Robie’s first arrest by the French military in January 1987. Published in the February edition of Islands Business (Fiji-based regional news magazine). Image: David Robie/RNZ Pacific/ Lydia Lewis

By Lydia Lewis, RNZ Pacific journalist

Liberation “must come” for Kanaky New Caledonia, says one of the few New Zealand journalists who have worked consistently on stories across the French Pacific territories.

Journalist David Robie was arrested at gunpoint by French police in January 1987, and is no stranger to civil unrest in New Caledonia.

Writing his first articles about the Pacific from Paris in 1974 on French nuclear testing when working for Agence France-Presse, Robie became a freelance journalist in the 1980s, working for Radio Australia, Islands Business, The Australian, Pacific Islands Monthly, Radio New Zealand and other media.

The Asia Pacific Report editor, who has been on the case for 50 years now, arrived at his interview with RNZ Pacific with a bag of books packed with images and stories from his days in the field.

“I did get arrested twice [in Kanaky New Caledonia], in fact, but the first time was actually at gunpoint which was slightly unnerving,” Robie explained.

“They accused me of being a spy.”

David Robie standing with Kanak pro-independence activists and two Australian journalists at Touho, northern New Caledonia, while on assignment during the FLNKS boycott of the 1984 New Caledonian elections. (David is standing with cameras strung around his back).
Dr David Robie standing with Kanak pro-independence activists and two Australian journalists at Touho, northern New Caledonia, while on assignment during the FLNKS boycott of the 1984 New Caledonian elections. (Robie is standing with cameras strung around his back). Image: Wiken Books/Back Cover

Liberation ‘must come’
Robie said liberation “must come” for Kanaky New Caledonia.

“It’s really three decades of hard work by a lot of people to build, sort of like a future for New Caledonia, which is part of the Pacific rather than part of France,” Robie said.

He said France has had three Prime Ministers since 2020 and none of them seem to have any “real affinity” for indigenous issues, particularly in the South Pacific, in contrast to some previous leaders.

“From 2020 onwards, basically, France lost the plot,” after Édouard Philippe was in office, Robie said.

He called the current situation a “real tragedy” and believed New Caledonia was now more polarised than ever before.

“France has betrayed the aspirations of the indigenous Kanak people.”

Robie said the whole spirit of the Nouméa Accord was to lead Kanaky towards self determination.

New Caledonia on UN decolonisation list
New Caledonia is listed under the United Nations as a territory to be decolonised — reinstated on 2 December 1986.

“Progress had been made quite well with the first two votes on self determination, the two referendums on independence, where there’s a slightly higher and reducing opposition.”

In 2018, 43.6 percent voted in favour of independence with an 81 percent voter turnout. Two years later 46.7 percent were in favour with a voter turnout of 85.7 percent, but 96.5 percent voted against independence in 2021, with a voter turnout of just 43.8 percent.

Robie labelled the third vote a “complete write off”.

Blood on their Banner: Nationalist Struggles in the South Pacific
Dr David Robie’s book Blood on their Banner: Nationalist Struggles in the South Pacific, the Philippines edition. Image: APR

France maintains it was legitimate, despite first insisting on holding the third vote a year earlier than originally scheduled, and in spite of pleas from indigenous Kanak leaders to postpone the vote so they could properly bury and mourn the many members of their communities who died as a result of the covid-19 pandemic.

Robie said France was now taking a deliberate step to “railroad” the indigenous vote in Kanaky New Caledonia.

He said the latest “proposed amendment” to the constitution would give thousands more non-indigenous people voting rights.

“[The new voters would] completely swamp indigenous people,” Robie said.

‘Hope’ and other options
Robie said there “was hope yet”, despite France’s betrayal of the Kanaks over self-determination and independence, especially over the past three years.

French President Emmanuel Macron is under increasing pressure to scrap proposed constitutional reform by Pacific leaders which sparked riots in New Caledonia.

Pacific leaders and civil society groups have affirmed their support for New Caledonia’s path to independence.

Robie backed that call. He said there were options, including an indefinite deferment of the final stage, or Macron could use his presidential veto.

“So [I’m] hopeful that something like that will happen. There certainly has to be some kind of charismatic change to sort out the way things are at the moment.”

“Charismatic change” could be on its way with talk of a dialogue mission.

One of Dr David Robie's books, Och Världen Blundar ("And the World Closed its Eyes") - the Swedish edition of his 1989 Blood on their Banner book.
A masked Kanak militant near La Foa in western Grande Terre island during the 1980s . . . this photo is a screenshot from the cover of the Swedish edition of David Robie’s 1989 book Blood on their Banner: Nationalist Struggles in the South Pacific. Image: Lydia Lewis/David Robie/RNZ Pacific

Having Édouard Philippe — who has always said he had grown a strong bond with New Caledonia when he was in office until 2020 — on the mission would be “a very positive move”, said Robie.

“Because what really is needed now is some kind of consensus,” he said.

‘We don’t want to be like the Māori in NZ’
New Caledonia could still have a constructive “partnership” with France, just like the Cook Islands has with New Zealand, Robie said.

“The only problem is that the French government doesn’t want to listen,” New Caledonia presidential spokesperson Charles Wea said.

“You cannot stop the Kanak people from claiming freedom in their own country.”

Despite the calls, Wea said concerns were setting in that Kanak people would “become a minority in their own country”.

“We [Kanak people] are afraid to be like Māori in New Zealand. We are afraid to be like Aboriginal people in Australia.”

He said those fears were why it was so important the controversial constitutional amendments did not go any further.

Robie said while Kanaks were already a minority in their own country, there had been a pretty close parity under the Nouméa Accord.

Vote a ‘retrograde step’
“Bear in mind, a lot of French people who’ve lived in New Caledonia for a long time, believe in independence as well,” he said.

But it was the “constitutional reform” that was the sticking point, something Robie refused to call a “reform”, describing as “a very retrograde step”.

In 1998, there was “goodwill” though the Nouméa accord.

“The only people who could participate in New Caledonian elections, as opposed to the French state as a whole, were indigenous Kanaks and those who had been living in New Caledonia prior to 1998,” something France brought in at the time.

Robie said a comparison can be drawn “much more with Australia”, rather than Aotearoa New Zealand.

“Kanak people resisting French control a century and a half ago were executed by the guillotine,” he said.

To Robie, Aotearoa was probably the better example of what New Caledonia could be.

“But you have to recall that New Caledonia began colonial life just like Australia, a penal colony,” he said.

Robie explained how Algerian fighters were shipped off to New Caledonia, Vietnamese fighters were also sent during the Vietnam War, among other people from other minority groups.

“A lot of people think it’s French and Kanak. It’s not. It’s a lot more mixed than that and a lot more complicated.”

The media and the blame game
As Robie explained the history, another issue became apparent: the lack of media interest and know-how to cover such events from Aotearoa New Zealand.

He said he had been disappointed to see many mainstream outlets glossing over history and focusing on the stranded Kiwis and fighting, which he said was significant, but needed context.

He said this lack of built-up knowledge within newsrooms and an apparent issue of “can’t be bothered, or it’s too problematic,” was projecting the indigenous population as the bad guys.

“There’s a projection that basically ‘Oh, well, they’re young people… looting and causing fires and that sort of thing’, they don’t get an appreciation of just how absolutely frustrated young people feel. It’s 50 percent of unemployment as a result of the nickel industry collapse, you know,” Robie explained.

When it came to finger pointing, he believed the field activist movement CCAT did not intend for all of this to happen.

“Once the protests reached a level of anger and frustration, all hell broke loose,” said Robie.

“But they [CCAT] have been made the scapegoats.

“Whereas the real culprits are the French government, and particularly the last three prime ministers in my view.”

Dr David Robie’s updated book on the New Caledonia troubles, news media and Pacific decolonisation issues was published in 2014, Don’t Spoil My Beautiful Face: Media, Mayhem and Human Rights in the Pacific (Little Island Press).

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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