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Anti-independence ads accused of ‘profound racism’ against indigenous New Caledonians in court action

·4-min read

Cartoons urging New Caledonians to vote no to independence from France in this weekend’s referendum have been accused of “profound racism and ridicule towards Pacific Islanders, especially the [indigenous] Kanak people”, in a legal submission lodged with France’s highest judicial body.

An urgent appeal has been lodged against the broadcast of the animations, which have been running on television in New Caledonia and online, with the Council of State in France.

The cartoon clips are run by Le Voix du Non – a grouping of various anti-independence parties – with themes such as the future of passports, environment, education, health and money under an independent New Caledonia.

Related: Covid, mourning and the spectre of violence: New Caledonia prepares for blighted independence vote

They have been accused of portraying non-whites in a degrading and humiliating way, presenting them as having no mastery of French language and with accents “that signify their primitive and uncultivated state,” the 12-page legal appeal has alleged.

The appeal from the pro-independence FLNKS, the non-aligned Lets Build party and an individual, Lueisi Waupanga, a member of the Polynesian community, to the Council of State follows unsuccessful calls to the Audiovisual High Council (CSA) to stop the broadcasts.

The legal appeal is signed by four citizens of New Caledonia, including Professor Mathias Chauchat, Professor of Law at the University of New Caledonia. The appeal argues the animations contravene the CSA broadcasting rules, and are racist, degrading and humiliating.

“Is this how you see us after 30 years?” said Waupang in the appeal. “Common growers of yams and manioc, incapable of thinking for ourselves, generally incapable?”

The referral to the Council of State alleges the animations portray a hierarchy of races, with the mixed-race settlers (Caldoches), then Pacific Islanders and lastly the Kanak people. The non-Kanak authoritative character in the animations warns that independence will deplete services such as health, education and police and speaks French with a cultivated accent, whereas the pro-independence characters speak with distinctively childlike voices.

Philippe Wakaine, a retired public servant, said the animations, which began airing on 29 November, are “truly degrading, the way in which Kanaks, longterm settlers (Caldoches) and Pacific Islanders are portrayed, especially through their accents. They are making fun of us.”

In reply to the calls for cancellation of the animations, Les Voix Du Non campaign director, Christopher Gygés said that “no particular community was targeted”. He told France.tv in Noumea that the aim had been “to render complex matters simple through the use of colloquial language from all communities”.

In response to questions from the Guardian, Le Voix Du Non sent an interview given by Gygés with Radio Rythme Bleu (RRB), in which Gygés said he was very surprised by the reaction.

“We wanted to win those who might abstain, we wanted a serious message without taking ourselves too seriously. I note that the pro-independence people lack a sense of humour… what upsets them is really the message. To justify their non-participation in the poll they are finding enemies everywhere.”

Asked about the controversy the cartoons caused, Gygés said he was “very surprised” and said there was “absolutely no racism.”

“We didn’t go too far ... I worry about a society which doesn’t have a sense of humour.”

Related: Emmanuel Macron’s dangerous shift on the New Caledonia referendum risks a return to violence | Rowena Dickins Morrison, Adrian Muckle and Benoît Trépied

This Sunday’s referendum was to have been the country’s third and final vote on independence, with support for independence increasing over the last few years.

The lead-up to the vote has been fraught. France has refused calls from the FLNKS and Pasifika parties to postpone the referendum, due to the customary mourning responsibilities of Kanaks and Islanders, who suffered the majority of the 277 deaths and 10,700 Covid cases in the territory. FLNKS have urged people not to participate in the vote.

The campaign against independence from France has been marked by racism in the past. When the pro-independence parties formed a governing coalition with centrist non-Kanaks in 1982 the city of Noumea was covered with anonymous leaflets announcing “Planet of the Apes”.

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