‘I can’t just stand back’: Kanak pro-independence activist follows mum’s footsteps

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Kanak activist Jessie Ounei
Kanak activist Jessie Ounei . . . trying to balance the skewed information in New Zealand media and "shed light" on the independence struggle in New Caledonia. Image: Photo: RNZ/Angus Dreaver

By Pretoria Gordon, RNZ News journalist

Jessie Ounei is following in her mum’s footsteps as a Kanak pro-independence activist.

Last Wednesday, Ounei organised a rally outside the French Embassy in Wellington to “shed light on what is happening in New Caledonia“.

She said there was not enough information, and the information that had been reported in mainstream media was skewed.

“It is depicting us as savages, as violent, and not giving proper context to what has actually happened, and what is happening in New Caledonia,” Ounei said.

Her mum, Susanna Ounei, was born in Ouvéa in New Caledonia, and was a founding member of the Kanak independence movement, now the umbrella group FLNKS (Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front).

“Ouvéa is the island where 19 of our fathers, uncles, and brothers were massacred,” Jessie Ounei said.

“And it was actually that massacre that was a catalyst for the Matignon Accords and eventually the Nouméa Accords.”

More power to Kanaks
In 1988, an agreement, the Matignon Accord, between the French and the Kanaks was signed, which proposed a referendum on independence to be held by 1998. Instead, a subsequent agreement, the Nouméa Accord, was signed in 1998, which would give more power to Kanaks over a 20-year transition period, with three independence referenda to be held from 2018.

Jessie Ounei (left), her mum Susanna Ounei, and her brother Toui Jymmy Jinsokuna Burēdo Ounei in Ouvéa, New Caledonia. Credit: Supplied
Jessie Ounei (left), her mum Susanna Ounei, and her brother Toui Jymmy Jinsokuna Burēdo Ounei in Ouvéa, New Caledonia. Image: Jessie Ounei/RNZ

In 2018, the first of the three referenda were held with 57 percent voting against, and 43 voting for independence from France.

In 2020, there was a slight increase in the “yes” votes with 47 percent voting for, and 53 percent voting against independence.

The third referendum however was mired in controversy and is at the centre of the current political unrest in New Caledonia.

The date for the vote, 12 December 2021, was announced by France without consensus and departed from the two-year gap between the referenda that had been held previously This drew the ire of pro-independence parties.

The parties called for the vote to be delayed by six months saying they were not able to campaign and mobilise voters during the pandemic and appealed for time to observe traditional mourning rites for the 280 Kanak people who died during a covid-19 outbreak.

France refused new referendum
France refused and Kanak leaders called for a boycott of the vote in December which resulted in a record low voter turnout of 44 percent, compared to 86 percent in the previous referendum, and the mostly pro-French voters registering an overwhelming 96 percent vote against New Caledonia becoming an independent country.

Kanak pro-independence parties do not recognise the result of the third referendum, saying a vote on independence could not be held without the participation of the colonised indigenous peoples.

But France and pro-independent French loyalists in New Caledonia insist the vote was held legally and the decision of Kanak people not to participate was their own and therefore the result was legitimate.

Because of this, for the past several years New Caledonia has been stuck in a kind of political limbo with France and the pro-French loyalists in New Caledonia pushing the narrative that the territory has voted “no” to independence three times and therefore must now negotiate a new permanent political status under France.

While on the other hand, pro-independence Kanaks insisting that the Nouméa accord which they interpreted as a pathway to decolonisation had failed and therefore a new pathway to self-determination needs to be negotiated.

Paris has made numerous attempts since 2021 to bring the two diametrically opposed sides in the territory together to decide on a common future but it has all so far been in vain.

A pro New Caledonia protest outside the French Embassy in Wellington
“Free Kanaky” . . . pro-Kanak independence protesters outside the French Embassy in Wellington last week. Image: RNZ/Angus Dreaver

New Caledonia’s ‘frozen’ electoral rolls
Despite the political impasse in the territory, France earlier this year proposed a constitutional amendment that would change the electoral roll in the territory sparking large scale protests on the Kanak side which were mirrored by support rallies organised by pro-French settlers.

But what is so controversial about a constitutional amendment?

Under the terms of the Nouméa Accord, voting in provincial elections was restricted to people who had resided in New Caledonia prior to 1998, and their children. The measure was aimed at giving greater representation to the Kanaks who had become a minority population in their own land and to prevent them becoming even more of a minority.

The French government’s proposed constitutional amendment would allow French residents who have lived in New Caledonia continuously for more than 10 years to vote. It is estimated this would enable a further 25,000 non-indigenous people, most of them pro-French settlers, to vote in local elections which would weaken the indigenous Kanak vote.

Despite multiple protests from indigenous Kanaks, who called on the French government to resolve the political impasse before making any electoral changes, Paris pressed ahead with the proposed legislation passing in both the Senate and the National Assembly.

On Monday 13 May, civil unrest erupted in the capital of Nouméa, with armed clashes between Kanak pro-independence protesters and security forces. Seven people have been killed, including two gendarmes, and hundreds of others have been injured.

Last Wednesday, Jessie Ounei organised a rally outside the French Embassy in Wellington to raise awareness of the violence against Kanak in New Caledonia.

“For decades, the Kanak independence movement has persevered in their pursuit of autonomy and self-determination, only to be met with broken promises and escalating violence orchestrated by the French government,” she said.

A Kanak flag raised high at the New Caledonia protest outside the French Embassy in Wellington last week.
A Kanak flag raised high at the New Caledonia protest outside the French Embassy in Wellington last week. Image: RNZ/Angus Dreaver

‘Time to stand in solidarity’
“It is time to stand in solidarity with the Kanak people and demand an end to this cycle of oppression and injustice.”

Ounei said she was very sad, and very angry, because it could have been prevented.

“This was not something that was a surprise, it was something that was foreseen, and it was warned about,” she said.

Ounei was also born in Ouvéa, and moved to Wellington in 2000 with her mum and her brother, Toui Jymmy Jinsokuna Burēdo Ounei. Susanna Ounei died in 2016, but had never gone back to New Caledonia, because she was disappointed in the direction of the independence movement.

“Ouvéa has a staunch history of taking a stand against French imperialism, colonialism,” Jessie Ounei said.

“I have grown up hearing, seeing and feeling the struggle of our people.”

She said her mum, and a group of activists, were the original people who had reclaimed Kanak identity.

“If I can stand here and say that I’m Kanak, it is because of those people,” she said.

Now Ounei has picked up the baton, and is following in her mum’s footsteps.

She said after spending her entire life watching her mum give herself to the cause, it was important for her to do the same.

“I have two daughters, I have family, if I don’t do this, I don’t know who else will,” she said.

“And I can’t just stand back. It’s not the way that I grew up. My mum wouldn’t have stood back. She never stood back.

“And even though I feel quite under-qualified to be here, I want to honour all the sacrifices that the activists, including my mum, made.”

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

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