‘France lost its way’: journalist David Robie on the riots in Kanaky/New Caledonia

'A subversive in Kanaky': article about David Robie's first arrest by the French army in February 1987. Published in the February issue of Islands Business (Fiji-based regional news magazine), pp.  (From my 2014 book Don't Spoil My Beautiful Face: Media, Chaos and Human Rights in the Pacific.)

‘A subversive in Kanaky’: article about David Robie’s first arrest by the French army in February 1987. Published in the February issue of Islands Business (Fiji-based regional news magazine), pp. (From my 2014 book Don’t Spoil My Beautiful Face: Media, Chaos and Human Rights in the Pacific.)
Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Lydia Lewis

Release “must come” for Kanaky/New Caledonia, says one of the few New Zealand journalists who has consistently worked on stories across French 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 Pacific articles from Paris in 1974 about the French nuclear tests, Robie became a freelance journalist in the 1980s, working for Radio Australia, Islands Business and RNZ Pacific.

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

“I actually got arrested twice (in Kanaky/New Caledonia), but the first time it was at gunpoint, which was a little disconcerting,” Robie explained.

“They accused me of being a spy.”

David Robie with Kanak pro-independence activists and two Australian journalists in Touho, northern New Caledonia, while on assignment during the FLNKS boycott of the 1984 elections in New Caledonia.  (David is standing with cameras hanging from his back).

David Robie with Kanak pro-independence activists and two Australian journalists in Touho, northern New Caledonia, while on assignment during the FLNKS boycott of the 1984 elections in New Caledonia. (Robie is standing with cameras hanging from his back).
Photo: Books Supplied/ Wiken

Robie said release “must come” for Kanaky/New Caledonia.

“It’s actually three decades of hard work by a lot of people to build something of a future for New Caledonia, which is part of the Pacific and not part of France,” Robie said.

He said France has had three prime ministers since 2020 and none of them appear to have a “real affinity” for indigenous issues, particularly in the South Pacific, unlike some previous leaders.

“Starting in 2020, France basically lost its way,” after Édouard Philippe came to power, Robie said.

He described the current situation as a “true tragedy” and considered that New Caledonia was now more polarized than ever.

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

Robie said the whole spirit of the Noumea agreement was to move Kanaky towards self-determination.

New Caledonia is on the United Nations list as a territory to be decolonized.

“A lot of progress has been made with the first two votes on self-determination and the two referendums on independence, where there is slight opposition.”

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

Robie called the third vote a “total write-off.”

France maintains that it was legitimate, despite having initially insisted on holding the third vote a year earlier than originally planned, and despite pleas from indigenous Kanak leaders to postpone the vote so that 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 “immobilize” the indigenous vote in Kanaky/New Caledonia.

He said the latest “proposed amendment” to the constitution would give thousands more non-Indigenous people the right to vote.

“(The new voters) are completely destroying indigenous people,” Robie said.

‘Hope’ and other options

Robie said there was “still hope” despite France’s betrayal of the Kanaks on self-determination and independence, especially in the last three years.

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

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

Robie backed up that call.

He said there were options, including an indefinite postponement 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 the way things are right now.”

“Charismatic change” could be on the way with talks 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 book Blood on Their Banner.


Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Lydia Lewis

Having Edouard Philippe, who has always stated that he had developed a strong bond with New Caledonia when he was in office until 2020, on the mission would be “a very positive step”, Robie said.

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

‘We don’t want to be like the Maori in New Zealand’

New Caledonia could still have a constructive “partnership” with France, just as the Cook Islands have with New Zealand, Robie said.

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

“The Kanak people cannot be prevented from demanding freedom in their own country.”

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

“We (the Kanak people) are afraid of being like the Maori in New Zealand. We are afraid of being like the Aborigines in Australia.”

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

Robie said that while Kanaks were already a minority in their own country, there has been fairly close parity.

“You have to keep in mind that many French people who have lived in New Caledonia for a long time also believe in independence,” he said.

But the sticking point was “constitutional reform,” something Robie described as “a very retrograde step.”

In 1998 there was “good will” through the Noumea agreement.

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

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

“The Kanaks who resisted French control a century and a half ago were executed by guillotine,” he said.

For Robie, Aotearoa was probably the best example of what New Caledonia could be.

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

Robie explained how Algerian fighters were sent to New Caledonia, how Vietnamese fighters were also sent during the Vietnam War, among others 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 story, another problem became apparent: the media’s lack of interest and expertise in covering such events.

He said he had been disappointed to see many mainstream media gloss over the story and focus on the stranded Kiwis and the fighting, which he said was significant but needed context.

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

“There’s a projection that basically says, ‘Oh, well, it’s young people… looting and setting fires and that kind of thing,’ they fail to appreciate how absolutely frustrated young people are. It’s ’50 percent unemployment is due to the collapse of the nickel industry,” Robie explained.

As far as finger pointing goes, I believed that CCAT did not intend for all of this to happen.

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

“But they (CCAT) had become scapegoats.

“While the real culprits are the French government and, in my opinion, especially the last three prime ministers.”