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A French Slice Of South Pacific, New Caledonia Faces Uncertain Future

Article illustrative image Partner logo Kanaki teenagers in New Caledonia

NOUMEA - Stanley Jemes' dream is to move back to Maré Island. There, he would grow sandalwood and yams, far away from town, "where everything is for sale."

On the island where he was born, Stanley would live with his family, like a tribe. "In Maré, we all live together. Here in Tindu, it’s everyone for themselves," explains the young Kanak (an indigenous inhabitant of New Caledonia), in his beanie and flip flops.

The social unease of young Kanaks is a recurrent topic in New Caledonia. In this remote South Pacific archipelago, where the French planted their flag in 1853, Kanak separatists and Caldoche (New Caledonia-born French settlers) loyalists made peace in 1988 with the Matignon Accords, followed by the 1998 Nouméa Accord

Stanley, 24, just signed a six-month contract to work as a neighborhood social worker. He earns about 85% of the minimum wage. In Tindu, a working-class neighborhood in the north of the capital city of Nouméa, he helps local youths go back to school or start small projects.

"Kids drop out as early as primary school and start hanging out all day. I tell them that I regret dropping out and that smoking cannabis and drinking alcohol leads to nothing. But what do they care!" says Stanley. Along with his pregnant girlfriend, his four-year-old son, his parents and his brother, Stanley lives in a cramped studio. He "does not have enough resources" to benefit from social housing although he has been applying for five years.

In Tindu, on the Ducos Peninsula, housing projects line up near an industrial park. "All these young Kanaks who are getting into trouble" worry Stanley. "In the tribe, the elders talked to youths and knew how to punish them. In Nouméa, parents no longer dare to give them ‘a good hiding’ - because they are afraid of ending up in family court," explains Stanley, showing no hard feelings for the many times he was beat with a stick throughout his childhood in Maré.

A college freshman, Nelson Lallié, who just turned 20, believes that "the voice of young people is ignored" in New Caledonia, where more than half of the population is under 30. "Nobody cares about us. Nothing is being done to help college students," says this biology major with hopes to become an engineer.

Time for a new destiny

For the first time in its history, France hopes to achieve and assist the process of decolonization of its remote territory that is filled with valuable nickel reserves.

The preamble of the Nouméa Accords “recognizes the shadows of the colonial period, even if it was not devoid of light." The text reconciles pride and repentance: "The past was the time of colonization. The present is the time of sharing, through the achievement of a new balance. The future must be the time of an identity, in a common destiny." 

With technical and financial help from France, some powers (education, commerce, public safety) are being gradually transferred to the local authorities, ahead of a referendum on self-determination that will take place between 2014 and 2018.

Until then, the major challenge is to give some meaning to this so-called "common destiny." This idea seems rather utopian in regard to the huge proportion of Kanak youth demographic that is “left out," as anthropologist Patrice Godin puts it. "They do not suffer from cultural loss but from a loss of meaning, which is even worse. Young Kanaks are not torn between tradition and modernity, they need to come up with a new blueprint; in Japan, for instance, society is both very traditional and very modern at the same time."

Bruno Calandreau, a child psychologist working at the Casado youth health center, sees a lot of young people "who are ashamed of who they are, and worried about what they will become [...] New Caledonia is a teenager itself – still searching for its own identity. Little by little, it is severing the ties with its motherland. It is changing at high speeds, without really knowing where it is heading – as its political future is still undecided. This atmosphere is stressful for young people,” says the psychologist.

Eli Poigoune, the president of the Human Rights league who was the fourth Kanak to pass the French high school certificate – the baccalaureate exam – in 1964, has been raising the alarm over youth angst and the indifference of the authorities. "People don’t seem to understand how much of a dramatic shock colonization was. Our values, spirituality, paganism, were all quashed by the European system."

Like many social and education workers, this former mathematics teacher says the cultural dualism appears as early as in primary school. "Kanak society is based on the notion of collectiveness and communication, the importance of the group. At school and in the West, we are taught that the individual prevails, but at the same time, our organization does not allow youths to build their own individuality. They don’t know which world they belong to."

Reducing the gap

In 2009, according to a university study, only 12.5% of the baccalaureate graduates in New Caledonia were of Kanak ancestry – 54.1% were Europeans. Despite the fact that local authorities are in charge of primary and secondary education, because of political tensions, no real education vision has seen the light.

Richard Waminya, a scholar in education studies, explains, "Kanak students are trapped in a system that they don't fit in with. Their way of thinking is not linear but circular: through networks and relationships between the individual and the object." In four experimental classrooms on Lifou Island, they "achieved sensational results thanks to an approach linking the school and the home." He hopes that "parents will be keen to transmit their knowledge,” as opposed to the fact that school is still considered as being "for Whites."

Despite clear progress, investments and affirmative action programs for Kanaks, reducing the gap has been a very slow process. In 20 years, the number of Kanaks in managerial positions has increased sevenfold –this accounts for only 3% of the Kanak workforce compared to 13% for the rest of the population. There is still only a handful of Kanak doctors, judges, architects or dentists.

This gap comforts the politicians who are happy to stick with a "victim stance." Christophe Sand – a descendent of Algerian convicts who were sent to the archipelago – believes this is wrong. “In New Caledonia, the Arabs, Vietnamese and Indonesians lived in huts too. But eventually, we need to stop dwelling on the country’s colonial past. Young people have managed to get over it and move on, we are at a pivotal generation." He says he is sure that “Kanak culture will regenerate and move into the 21st century. This culture is alive, it is not a museum exhibit."

Thirty-year-old environment researcher Charly Zongo, a pragmatic separatist, is saddened to see "these young people in hoodies who spend their time yelling ‘Kanaky 2014’ [Kanaky is the name separatists use for New Caledonia]. What matters is the work that needs to be done before the referendum. The country will be in charge of its powers, we need to take responsibilities."

Suicides, alcohol and marijuana use, risky sexual behavior and dangerous driving, are all consequences of the abandonment of this generation – torn between a traditional world that is fading away and a consumption society that they are yet to join. A quarter of criminal offenses in New Caledonia are done by people below the age of 18, compared to 18% in mainland France. At Camp-Est, a rickety jail in Nouméa, described as a "postcolonial penal house" by a local lawyer, 420 inmates are packed in to the facility that can only hold 192 – 85% of the prisoners are Kanaks below the age of 30.

To tackle crime, Nouméa's deputy mayor, Gaël Yanno a fomer UMP (the French conservative party) MP who was defeated in last June’s election, had said during his campaign that he would establish a ceasefire for youths under 13.

This proposal had juvenile judge Marianne Humbert-Deswartes hopping mad. She denounces the weaknesses of the system: "Locking people up, we know how to do that. But tackling the problem at its roots is another story," she says angrily. Child protection services, which are the responsibility of local authorities, lack funding. There are not enough care homes – "social misery is a reality" that mostly affects Kanak families. She is struck by the social and ethnic divide: “We see a huge number of children without medical coverage, and who have never been to the doctor,” she says.

“New Caledonia must be able to push forward a real project of social change, instead of always focusing on independence issues," says Patrice Godin. "We need to go beyond this debate and embrace a global vision, something that youths here need."

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