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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

The cultural impact of the Matignon-Oudinot Agreements

Dominique Jouve

Texte intégral

1May 2008

2In March 2008, a collective exhibition, as a remembrance of the handshake marking the beginning of the Matignon-Oudinot Agreements, will open at the Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Noumea. In April, new flowers will be placed in Ouvea in memory of those who died during the assault on the cave where the hostages were being held. No other celebration or commemoration is planned, apart from the local advertising of the CNRS conference that would be held in Paris on 25th and 26th April. How has this gesture, which brought an end to more than five years of unrest, a near-civil war, resonated in the cultural sector?

3In 1993, in an interview with the magazine Mwà Véé, a key witness, J. P. Aïfa said, “I don’t think certain loyalists have changed their minds: they are ready for change at an institutional level, but for themselves”. The tone was not really optimistic. An agreement was signed, but the ulterior motives were to conserve what had already been acquired or to strengthen a dominant position. Have the hopes that arose during the signing of the Agreements been fulfilled or were the much-praised development and stability mere pipe dreams? It is up to the historians, sociologists and economists to decide. The assessments made just before the Noumea Agreement had mixed results; without challenging the significant progress, there were only delays in the stability process. What about the culture?

4It is true that even before “the events”, certain Kanak activist movements at the “Mélanésia 2000” cultural festival had challenged the relationships between politics and culture. Some young Marxist militants had criticised Jean-Marie Tjibaou for putting cultural alienation before economic exploitation, the more important of the two. One might think that “politics” does not have the same impact in the Kanak country as in France. In short, when political parties make a political claim, it is presented somewhat similar to politics in the West, with its concept of democracy that is imported into Oceania, which the colonised populations have slowly taken in since the abolition of the code de l’indigénat. It is best not to give in to the strong criticisms of postcolonial theories and the idea that democracy is only a new form of alienation for those who were colonised, on whom it would have been “forced” or “bestowed”, as the Kanaks have had to find their place in this country and this was done with difficulty.

5When a claim about identity and culture appears as a world view that encompasses the game of political parties, amongst other groups of individuals – it can be deemed as an Oceanic way of thinking, which certain Europeans (or others), who have lived in New Caledonia for several generations, say they could share. Louis-José Barbançon expresses his view by saying “we have earned our right to dignity and homeland through history, while the Kanaks’ right is inherited. (…) They are [legitimate]. We must prove that we are [as well]”. Thus, the “Caldoche” (people of European origin born in New Caledonia) research in the post-Matignon years was defined by questioning their identity, differentiating it from the metropolitan identity, and finding common concerns and experiences with the native population. Research is based, to a large extent, on the attachment to the Caledonian land. The poet Nicolas Kurtovitch expresses this in the following way:

Grand Terre
Wild Earth
And of black sand
Burying my fingers
Like one would do in water
I draw my strength and my skill
From your stomach

6The term, “Caldoche”, which had been used in a rather derogatory fashion in the French press, was reclaimed with pride in a collective book of thought on identity entitled, “Being Caldoche Today”. It was published in 1994 and the authors defined their vision in the following way: “Tired of being denied, hurt, and challenged over our roots, our daily life and our perspectives, we have gathered together, as Caldoche artists, writers and intellectuals (…), to discuss the issue of our cultural identity, regardless of our social origins and political differences.” The foreword also states that this approach does not serve “any ideology nor any party, despite the fact that it may be seen as political in the way in which questions ‘citizens’ about their place in the ‘city’”. However, Barbançon (one of the contributors) did say, in a premonitory way, “I believe in the Caledonian”. As is generally the case with the Oceanic community, the identity he feels is based on the presence of the dead in this land, and a strong link with their ancestors. The book also points towards the future as different authors speak of their children and reflect on the possibility of a shared future. This acts perhaps as a basis to understand the way in which the Kanaks acknowledge time.

7However, the identity claims of the “Caldoche” and the Kanaks are not at all the same. Firstly, the Kanaks had to create the concept of a unified “Kanak people”, contrary to the colonial view of them as small tribes continuously at war with each other. Moreover, the Kanaks always know who is or who is not Kanak based on people’s participation in the customary ceremonies (see Monnerie, 2005). This approach to identity is therefore mobile, dynamic, and inclusive; it does not define people by their nature but by their social relations. Déwé Gorodé’s cry, “We are there”, is thus important: it is about existing as we are and as we will be, imposing an image of pride against the racist or colonialist stereotypes. Octave Togna’s comments on the period preceding “the events” thus refer to a demand that could be made at all levels of politics (in terms of “the game of political parties”); existential, cultural, social, economic. “We were considered to be sub-human, incapable of action or thought.”

8The violence of “the events” had traumatised people, which explain why the agreements represented a “glimmer of hope for peace and happiness” (a personal dedication from F. Ohlen to the author of these lines in 2001.) Looking back on events in 1993, J. P. Aïfa recalls, “what deeply touched me, what saddened me the most, were the 1984 events, the number of people who died in this country. Whichever side they were on, they died for nothing, because there was a lack of comprehension between people who had lived side by side for generations without ever being capable of understanding each other”. Nicolas Kurtovitch’s verses express the futility of this pain:

  • 1 Nicolas Kurtovitch, L’arme qui me fera vaincre, Nouméa, Éditions Vents du Sud, 1998.

The paths to hatred and blood
Wandering paths of despair, paths
With dead-end paths to nowhere1

9Therefore, it is up to the Europeans and the Kanaks to show each other what their respective cultures are like, through their habits and customs, and ask each other to present themselves in such a way that mutual understanding will create a harmonious society in which nobody is excluded. This exchange seemed bipolar; we had to wait for the Noumea Agreement to talk about the multicultural and multilingual country and to take into account the multiple forms of exchange.

10Studies are being conducted on the effects of this political text in terms of the people’s reactions, but several works will bear witness to the response that the Matignon-Oudinot Agreements have aroused. These works will be integrated into the common heritage of this country, a country that needs to be reconciled. Literature, historical and philosophical essays, theatre, dance, music, sculpture etc., these disciplines demonstrate the spiritual values of the region’s communities and convey the concept of humanity of the societies in question. This thus means putting greater emphasis on contemporary Kanak statuary (the exhibitions organised by the Agency for the Development of Kanak Culture (ADCK) at the Tjibaou Centre), the living oral traditions (storytelling, the arts of weaving and basket-making…), and the Kanak languages. We also wish to emphasise the blossoming of short stories (Déwé Gorodé, Nicolas Kurtovitch, Claudine Jacques etc.), the opening of Pierre Gope’s theatre, the numerous poetic activities (Déwé Gorodé, Nicolas Kurtovitch, Frédéric Ohlen, Friends of Poetry Club etc.), supported by editorial companies, most notably Grain de Sable and Herbier de feu, but the publishing house, Île de lumière and ADCK must also be mentioned. The large number of books published at the expense of authors has revealed their profound need to express themselves, bear witness, justify themselves and map out the path to the future from 1992 to 2000 and thereafter. The literary world is slowly establishing itself thanks to the creation of professional associations such as the “Association of New Caledonian writers”, which is aimed at people living in the region who have published a book. No boundaries separate communities, genders and ages. This initiative has also affected children’s books, with texts by Noëlle Ménager-Stahl and Claudine Jacques. This area of literature has been growing since the Noumea Agreement. More and more authors are choosing to set their short stories (and later, novels) in squats, Noumea, the inner suburbs of Noumea, and places, which embody the plurality of community life (the people of Vanuatu, Kanak, Wallis, Futuna, lower white classes, persons of mixed race etc.), without naivety or idealisation. In her early collections, Claudine Jacques chose the bush on the west coast as her characters’main setting and the way in which place evolves throughout her work until her latest collections, À l’ancre de nos vies, and Le cri de l’acacia, is very meaningful. The Caledonian identity does not confine itself to the countryside, which was the first place where the “Caldoche” was rooted. The same can be seen in Ismet Kurtovitch’s plays.

11The olive branches being extended by New Caledonia’s two main “ethnic groups” (this is a common term in Caledonia, used here without scientific rigour) led to several collective works. The authors were Déwé Gorodé and Nicolas Kurtovitch with their collection of poems, Dire le vrai. Published in 1997, this collection was an attempt to anticipate the political and legal history with an act of fraternity, a dialogue between two writers who could be perceived as symbols, perhaps even spokespersons, of the communities to which they both belong and differentiate themselves from at the same time. Similarly, Frédéric Ohlen also tried to produce a beautiful translation of a Maré battle song. Another co-authored text, a script called Les dieux sont borgnes, written by Nicolas Kurtovitch and Pierre Gope in 2002, will be staged with great success in Noumea, around the city, and even at the Avignon festival. Other adventurous projects with two authors include the Grande Terre dialogue with the island of Lifou by Déwé Gorodé and Wenio Ihage. The enthusiasm aroused by the signing of the Matignon-Oudinot Agreements went well beyond the strict measures set out by the organic law, so much so that there was an overwhelming need to share this. Naturally these feelings did not come all of a sudden in 1988, it was a way of thinking that began with the origins of colonisation and has continued until today. The ADCK and the Delegation of Cultural Affairs have both played a key role in innovation, by supporting the creation of the island’s theatre and being involved in the setting up of the Tjibaou Cultural Centre. Granting funding for the display of plays, exhibitions and dance shows in the north province has resulted in the opening up of the “bush”, albeit in a rather limited way.

12In addition to this outburst of creativity, this period saw an emphasis on and re-evaluation of Caledonian heritage. It was not, strictly speaking, a radical change, rather a different way of thinking. In the 1970s, the New Caledonia Historical Studies Society started re editing the works of Georges Baudoux, followed by Jacques and Marie Nervat, and finally two texts by Jean Mariotti. It could be assumed that this initiative was a kind of response to both Kanak activism and the need felt by the Europeans who had been in Caledonia for several generations to find their roots. After 1988 and the setting up of the university, the view on heritage and the reasons for studying it changed notably. Re-editing the works of major authors (such as Jean Mariotti and Louise Michel’s original version of their Légendes et chansons de geste canaques), show previously unpublished texts or offer a different perspective on well-known texts (Delfaut/Daufelt), were all attempts to participate in the writing of New Caledonia’s literary history. Moreover, other books containing Kanak correspondence from the 1880s and authentic documents about the Ataï revolt helped to break down the stereotypes.

13It seems clear to me that the Noumea-Oudinot Agreements led to significant progress being made in the cultural and artistic domains. It was, for example, a crucial step in the recognition of the Kanak languages, as it saw their entry into the education system (secondary education). However, in the years 1996-97, people began to feel impatient, and criticisms emerged regarding both the inequalities in the development of different provinces and the reality of “peaceful decolonisation”. Can a cultural scene flourish long-term if socio-economic conditions are unfavourable to a part of society? The preamble of the Noumea Agreement goes much further than the Matignon Agreements regarding the settling of the colonial dispute; the establishment of “Caledonian citizenship”, with all the tensions that it provokes, creates a new situation. “Is there such thing as a utopia becoming a reality later in time?” wrote Louise Michel. This direction, this projection into the future that enables people to look forward to and dream about a new socio-economic reality, was reflected in the gift of the Mwâ Kâ in 2003. A totem pole, sculpted by artists from the eight customary regions of New Caledonia, was offered to all the people who had formerly lived in this land. As a gesture of hospitality from the Kanak people, it was to be the foundation for the shared future that the Noumea Agreement described, a future, which remains to be built.


1 Nicolas Kurtovitch, L’arme qui me fera vaincre, Nouméa, Éditions Vents du Sud, 1998.

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