New Caledonia: “While we talk about a global agreement, there is global chaos”

Darewa Dianou talks about his life since the start of the crisis in New Caledonia.
Mobilized in his neighborhood of Nouméa, Darewa Dianou, the son of Alphonse Dianou, independence leader killed in Ouvéa in 1988, tells Mediapart about his daily life since the start of the crisis. The difficulties in “channeling” young people, the fear of militias and the determination of those who fight on the ground,despite the absence of prospects.

When he picked up the phone the first time we contacted him, Sunday evening, May 19, Darewa Dianou had come to his house “to see the little family” . A short break, just enough time to make sure “everything is okay” before joining his fellow fighters. Since the start of the crisis in New Caledonia, this 38-year-old Kanak, father of four children, has been part of the “night team” responsible for securing the working-class district of Rivière-Salée, northeast of Nouméa.

This is where he grew up, he tells us the next day, a handful of hours of sleep in his voice. Here he chose to return four years ago, after living for a few years in Tindu, another working-class district of the city, where we met him in 2017. Of Rivière-Salée, he knows all the contours, the streets, the inhabitants, the different cultures and the many ethnic groups that live alongside each other there. Even in the midst of a crisis, he talks about “kids playing in the streets with their ball”, about mutual help between neighbors, and about the dignity that holds everyone together.

But Darewa Dianou also knows the daily life of young people in the neighborhood, the “daily police checks”, the lack of prospects, the “cost of living which continues to increase”, the stays in the penitentiary center, “unlimited alcohol and pills” which wreak havoc. “Young people who are 16-18 years old and who we sometimes have difficulty controlling”, he says, referring to the role of “big brothers”. “It’s not easy, but fortunately we are there to talk to them and instruct them, especially regarding alcohol,” he adds. And repeat to them the watchwords: always be careful.

Since the militias began to come out with weapons and three young Kanaks were shot and killed in the Greater Nouméa area, the situation has logically “toughened”. Adults become more vigilant after dark. “At curfew time [6 p.m. – editor's note], there are no more kids, no more grannies, no more women, no one walking in the streets anymore,” says Darewa Dianou.

During the day, the dams are filtering, but at night the entire neighborhood is barricaded. "We of course let emergency vehicles pass contrary to what I heard in the media."

Despite the dangers and the gunshots, this “big brother” of Rivière-Salée intends to continue to be “an actor” in the fight for full sovereignty. A struggle that he inherited from the age of 2, on May 5, 1988 to be exact, the day his father Alphonse Dianou, independence leader, was killed with eighteen of his comrades in the Ouvéa cave, where they had detained several gendarmes. Since then, Dianou, also a member of the Truth Justice Committee of Kanaky, has continued to sustain this “existential fight”.

A new generation of independentists 

For Darewa Dianou “the youth of Kanaky are expressing themselves” exactly as they did in 1988. “No one can stop them,” he says, also recognizing that the new generation is much more emancipated than his own. “Our generation still listens to the old people, but the new generation is different. We promised so many wonders to these young people... They ended up realizing that nothing was being done for them. There is a divide, otherwise we would not have gotten to this point, the young people would have put their foot down after the first press release from the old people calling for calm. But here, things are not calming down at all..."

If he tries to “channel the energy” of the young people in his neighborhood, the thirty-year-old believes that he has “no right to use [his] status as a big brother to lecture them”.  “They cultivated the fight in their hearts, it grew in their guts and today it comes out. They also say it: it's their Kanakynow, it's their time." The eruption is as strong as the warnings were numerous. “We warned that it was going to happen like this,” says the independence activist, who has participated in all the demonstrations in recent months. “People are surprised that the capital is on fire, but it actually makes sense. And the State knew it well. Noumea is a pressure cooker. You open it suddenly, it explodes.”

“It’s the revolt of the youth. We were overwhelmed, recognized in Libération Roch Wamytan, the independence president of the Congress of New Caledonia. Stopping self-reinforcing dynamic is very difficult. It can come back in our mouths like a boomerang, we know that, but we have to take the bull by the horns." In the same interview, the elected official also affirms that the State “must change its method” and calls for the departure of the high commissioner of the Republic, Louis Le Franc, who “designates the future culprits” and “puts pressure on courts".

Rather than talking about “rebellion”, Darewa Dianou prefers to use the expression “civil disobedience”. He points to a tense economic and social context, which explains – without justifying – the looting of stores. “Life is so expensive, people only have that,” he sighs. I don't know how many families there are here that live below the poverty line, but it's huge. People had the opportunity to help themselves. Well, they helped themselves." In New Caledonia, the median standard of living of Kanaks is twice as low as that of non-Kanaks.

As we speak, explosions ring out in the distance. “They are in the process of clearing the main roads,” says Darewa Dianou at the end of a 17,000-kilometer line. A little earlier in the day, Gérald Darmanin congratulated himself on the social network X on the“success” of the clearance operation undertaken the day before. “Seventy-six dams destroyed”, counted the Minister of the Interior and Overseas Territories, specifying that the numerous reinforcements sent on site would make it possible to increase operations of this type in order to “impose republican order”.

Having just returned from his rounds, the activist says that last night was “calmer” than the previous ones, even if “it's a little tiring”. “The mobile guards continue to charge,” he says. "They remove roadblocks that the young people put back in the process. It's a game of cat and mouse." Referring to the three young Kanaks and the 22-year-old gendarme, all killed by gunfire, he blames the authorities for exposing the population and the police to such a situation, when “the problem is political” and it should have “a political response”.

“Today, only the withdrawal of the text [the constitutional revision aimed at unfreezing the electoral body for the provincial elections which must be held before December 15 – editor's note] can calm the situation,” continues the thirty-year-old. “They say that young people are disinterested in politics, but that is not true: they are aware of the issues. The problem is that our politicians talk about a global agreement while for our generations, the only global agreement is full sovereignty. Not in fifty years, not in twenty years, now. We must reform the entire system of education, economy, food... This is the moment, we must take advantage of it.”

Many unanswered questions

Contrary to what he told us in 2017, Darewa Dianou ultimately voted in the first two self-determination referendums – like most separatists, he did not participate in the third imposed by Emmanuel Macron in December 2021. “I made the effort to go, but I realized that these referendums were not made for us,” he regrets. In 2018, he even welcomed the Head of State to Ouvéa, on the day marking thirty years of the massacre, and planted the “coconut tree of forgiveness” alongside him. “I listened to the old people, I didn't have much choice. Even today, when I see what he does, I wonder what he came to Ouvéa to do."

From now on, he is certain, “the State will always remain the colonial State”. “They were partners [according to the terms of the Nouméa agreement– editor’s note]  to support us on the path to emancipation and decolonization, but today that is not the case,” continues the thirty-year-old, which cites all the sprains observed in recent years. Starting with the appointment to the government of Sonia Backès, a leading figure of the right in the archipelago and president of the Southern province. “The one who said she was going to “screw things up,” he recalls, referring to a statement by the former Secretary of State. It didn't take much for it to go away.

While several voices plead for an “institutional pause”, in the words of the Renaissance mayor of Nouméa, Sonia Lagarde, and urge the President of the Republic not to convene the Versailles congress, Darewa Dianou also relies on politicians .“It’s the same as in 1988: everything will come down to negotiation,” he said, taking note of the requests for a dialogue or mediation mission mentioned here and there –“In any case, here, they no longer want hearing about Darmanin”– but fearing “a little shitty thing” which further pushes the problem away. “A dialogue mission can also be dangerous for us because we know what the State is going to do... Who exactly is it going to send?"

The question remains unanswered, like so many others. On Monday, Emmanuel Macron noted “clear progress in restoring order” during a defence council, but what about political discussions? At the end of Tuesday's council of ministers, government spokesperson Prisca Thevenot announced that the President of the Republic was going to the archipelago "this evening" in order to set up "a mission" there, without further precision on the contours of the latter.

What will the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) do? Will he be listened to by the young generation of independentists? “The problem is that we have no real contact with our FLNKS leaders,” concludes Darewa Dianou. “They are calling for calm in a press release, OK, but not everyone listens to the radio. People are mobilized on the ground, so perhaps we should go out into the field... Here, they are determined. While we are talking about a global agreement, there is global chaos.”

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Ellen Salvi
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