By G. Dunkel
Published Sep 10, 2009 11:23 PM
Since the beginning of August, the struggle of oppressed workers and youth in New Caledonia has brought tensions to heights not seen since this South Pacific island had an armed rebellion against France in the late 1980s.
Marches and street sit-ins have brought protesters into direct conflict with the police. At least two cops have been shot, and RFI reported Aug. 6 that 30 had been wounded. The left-wing union leading the struggle is the USTKE, the Union of Kanak Workers and the Exploited (Union syndicale des travailleurs kanaks et des exploités).
Kanak is the official name of the Indigenous people of the island.
New Caledonia is in reality a colony of France, with some special privileges due to a sharp struggle in the 1980s. Its economy, based on the production of nickel, has done very well recently. Growth was 5 percent a year between 2004 and 2008, and Nouméa, its capital, has set a French record for the most luxury cars per person.
The economic stakes for France in New Caledonia are high. It is the world’s fifth largest producer of nickel, a vital ingredient for stainless steel, and has the world’s second largest reserves. Wages in the nickel industry are high. This is why 800 to 1,200 Europeans—mainly from France—move to the island each month.
The Kanaks, especially the youth, leave school early and live on what the French call “small jobs,” or temporary work at low wages, and on what they can grow in their gardens. They are shoved into ghettoes with tiny houses or buildings that need renovation, far from the better neighborhoods, and lack the education and skills needed for better-paying, full-time jobs.
USTKE has community organizers who travel around to these neighborhoods, especially to help families of those arrested in the protests. (Le Monde, Aug. 23) USTKE rejects charges that it has manipulated the youth into protest and points to “colonial police repression” as the cause of the violence New Caledonia has suffered during August.
The spark for the current conflict was the firing of an airline worker, a member of USTKE, for “incompetence.” The union vigorously defended him with marches, protests and runway blockades.
In the course of the struggle, Gérard Jodar, the leader of USTKE, and some of his comrades invaded Nouméa’s airport runway and took refuge in planes where they were attacked by the cops. His swift sentence of a year in prison took into account what the court called his “previous acts of vandalism and blockades.” (Le Figaro, Aug. 25)
Jodar’s sentence was recently confirmed, but he and a number of comrades have an appeal hearing scheduled on Sept. 15. The USTKE called a demonstration Aug. 22 to not only demand their leader’s freedom but also to protest the high cost of living and the “colonialism” the French state is exhibiting in Nouméa.
A demonstration was held in Paris on Aug. 24 where the French left expressed solidarity with USTKE. Corrine Perron, a representative of USTKE in France, told the protest, “We gather together to denounce the colonial justice in Nouméa and the unjustifiable condemnation of union militants in New Caledonia. It is necessary to alert the public that New Caledonia not only faces the threat of swine flu but also the threat of police and judicial repression.” (Libération, Aug. 24)