- Une mairie dans la France coloniale: Koné, Nouvelle Calédonie by Benoît Trépied
Multiethnic parties or even stable electoral alliances are a rare breed in the postcolonial world. In Une mairie dans la France coloniale, Benoît Trépied attempts to chart and make sense of one such uncommon alliance over a tumultuous period in a complex colonial context. The Union Calédonienne (uc) was ascendant in New Caledonian politics between the post–World War II discontinuation of the exclusionary colonial regime and the 1980s, a period marked by increasing ethnic strife. Its slogan, “Deux couleurs, un seul peuple” (Two colors, one people), and its ability to effectively mobilize a variety of constituencies across the indigenous-nonindigenous divide make it an extraordinary occurrence both in the Pacific and in the context of colonial France. Think, for example, about the nefarious consequences of a political system dominated by ethnically affiliated parties in nearby Fiji or, as eminent historian of colonialism Frederick Cooper remarks in a note appended to Trépied’s text (369), about the ways in which the settlers of Algeria mobilized after World War II against the prospect of [End Page 568] gradual and limited emancipation for indigenous Muslims. How can exceptions to broadly recognized patterns be accounted for, especially in a setting characterized by a violent history of colonial dispossession, segregation, insurrection, and repression? Trépied’s grounded micro-historical ethnography of political and social life surrounding the town hall in Koné, New Caledonia, offers a convincing explanation to this question.
Was the uc ultimately an expression of European paternalism and a political movement that aimed to enlist Kanak support in order to sustain a “petit blanc” (working-class white) agenda? A superficial analysis would support this contention, especially if one were to focus merely on the background of elected representatives. Trépied’s work uncovers, however, a dense network of localized relationships that support the notion of an empowered Kanak subjectivity. Trépied reconstructs Koné’s social landscape by focusing on ambivalences, ambiguities, and tensions. At the local level, colonialism emerges as a multiform and contradictory process in which actors operate in a context that is informed by hierarchy but in which they also find significant room to adjust and craft an autonomous response. It is this complexity that at the local level enabled “unprecedented alliances and combinations” (359).
The uc was indeed an “alliance” of “colonial outsiders” including Kanak communities, Asians, descendants of unfree European laborers, salaried workers, and Europeans who had engaged in interracial relations. As such, it can only be understood through a careful analysis of localized structures of power and with reference to a particular set of colonial relationships and legacies slowly transitioning toward a more postcolonial dispensation. It is in an analysis of the totality of these relationships that the explanation to the above question is sought, and it is significant that Une mairie dans la France coloniale does not focus on a particular milieu or community but constitutes a grounded ethnographic analysis of power after the end of the explicitly colonial era. Kanak communities entered politics in the 1950s and 1960s, the years of political ascendancy for the uc and in a context characterized by significant continuities with the previous era. This alliance is especially significant because it was this alliance that allowed previously marginalized communities to exercise a significant degree of political agency.
This conclusion prompts a reconsideration of colonialism’s impact in New Caledonia. In the light of Trépied’s analysis, the colonial enterprise emerges as fundamentally limited, and if the colonized are finally seen as exercising agency, then colonizers, especially those petit blancs who sustained the uc for decades before exiting it, emerge as eminently vulnerable. Relations were porous, and social mobility went in both directions, but it is especially significant that as a political movement the uc was able to simultaneously offer different agendas to different constituencies. Class was crucial for one component of the uc but not for indigenous communities...