We had just landed in what we thought was the furthest reaches of New Caledonia when Céline shows up, introduces herself and informs us that she's going to take us a little further.
She and her circle of family and friends enjoyed the maritime refuge of the Northern Pleiades, a sub-archipelago of the Loyalty Islands which, after being located on the map, seems to us to have been left over from the prehistoric collapse of a large atoll.
From the airport, we go straight to Saint Joseph, at the northern end of Ouvéa. An already cohesive group awaits us, formed by her husband, William, and some companions.
We go aboard a powerful boat that Skipper Jeoffrey maneuvers between rocky and shallow islets, almost all of them inhospitable.
A Nautical Tour through the islanders of the Northern Pleiades
We make strategic stops at points with crystal clear water and coral bottom for refreshing dives and some underwater exploration, until the late hour and the energy spent on the exercise call for lunch.
Céline confirms that, over there, you only eat fresh fish. He immediately ordered the service of two of the men on board to capture the specimens to be cooked.
David – William's right hand man – and another friend put on the masks, fins and hunting rifles. They go out to swim towards a coral bank populated by numerous fish. We use the remaining equipment to keep up with them.
In a short time, hunters catch the first specimens, but the group is numerous and more are needed. As they hit shots, the wounded fish shed blood that spreads into the water and attracts intruders.
Between Corals and Sharks
The natives notice the arrival of the first fearful silhouettes but continue with the mission. More blood is spread. The gliding figures multiply and approach the humans in squeezing circles.
David notices our presence. He signals for us to get on the boat immediately. When we return to the surface, Céline and the others, already worried, clap their hands in the water and shout our names.
We shelter from sharks under the protection of hunters who, despite having left two fish behind, continue to harass them.
David finally appears beside the boat and asks his friends on board to collect the catch: “Hold on to this quick! They are down here. When several hammers appear, the thing is no longer to be played with.”
The hunters still haven't caught their breath but Jeoffrey puts the speedboat in motion. Along the way, they explain to us that encounters with sharks are very frequent in the tropical waters around Ouvéa and even more so in the Pleiades area.
“But you shouldn't be too scared either”, underlines David. “So far we've only had two accidents. One of the victims received 70 stitches in one arm.
The other was left with a slightly disfigured face. No one died." We understand your point of view but are hesitant to agree. In the meantime, we arrived at an island with an open white sand and disembarked in one of the most welcoming bays of that sub-archipelago.
Insular Meal in Ouvéa Fashion
The four men cook the fish in banana leaves, with corn and avocado. When everything is ready, Céline and we eat first, the others will watch. Céline assures us that it's like that, in those parts: the priority to the guests.
We suspected that, because of the sharks, the hunters had brought fewer fish and the hosts wanted to make sure we ate enough. It wouldn't be for Céline that it wouldn't happen.
Fed up with life in the metropolis, she had moved to that other-mér territory for ten years, Céline had been married to William with whom she had 3 children aged 1, 2 and 7. I only traveled from Ouvéa to Nice to see the family once a year with the children. William never accompanied her.
The flights of the natives of New Caledonia to the metropolis are considered fun – there are only discounts between islands of New Caledonia – and, as such, too expensive. On the other hand, it also gives us the idea that the husband is not very willing.
The Controversial Relationship between Ouvéa and the French Metropolis
Ouvéa, like the other Loyalty Islands, has always been a bastion of the struggle for independence in New Caledonia, interrupted in 1988 with the signing of the Matignon agreements (revised in the 1998 Nouméa agreement) which validated the incorporation into the French Republic through a strong autonomy and the holding of a referendum between 2014 and 2018.
All this overseas territory was the scene of violent clashes between 1984-88. This conflict culminated precisely in Ouvéa, in April and May 88, with what became known as Prize d'otages.
During this period, Kanak independence activists and members of the FLNKS (National Socialist Liberation Front Kanak) attacked the island's police and held its 31 members hostage.
The Revolt and the Drama of Ouvéa's Prise d'otages
But one of the officers refused arrest. He fired on the rebels and led to a small massacre, the disarming and imprisonment of the 27 surviving officers.
Meanwhile, Paris sent elite troops to resolve the unforeseen events that were also worsening on the neighboring islands of Lifou and Tide.
Huge confusion ensued between the then President François Mitterrand, the Prime Minister and the political entourage of his official residence at the Hotel Matignon.
On the 5th of May, the military launched the operation, allegedly without the knowledge of the Eliseu, and freed the hostages from the cave in which they were being held prisoner.
Members of the FLNKS and other independence activists accused the troops of having summarily executed or voluntarily let die some of the kidnappers after the assault, after they had already released 10 prisoners and while awaiting clarification of the political situation to release the rest.
Shortly thereafter, Mitterrand was re-elected and the new Prime Minister Michel Rochard constituted a dialogue mission charged with pacifying the discussion between loyalists and independentists.
This mission led to the Matignon agreements – signed by FLNKS leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou – and a general amnesty for the kidnappers and the military involved in the conflict.
A year later, during the first evocation of the tragedy in Ouvéa, Tjibaou is assassinated by Djubelly Wéa, an independence kanak who has always opposed the agreement. The decision on the future of New Caledonia was postponed but resentment settled in the minds of many natives.
The Gentle Kanak Hospitality of the Loyalty Islands, via Céline
Returning from the Pleiades, Céline invites us for a coffee at the Grande gite (hut) of the William family. His father received us with warmth and offered us bread that he made.
We see how the French woman has adapted to her new semi-tribal existence and sharing space even with her mother-in-law, who seems to exercise a certain matriarchal domain and keeps her long kanak dresses hanging exuberantly from the straw roof.
Not all elders offer the welcome that the father-in-law had given us.
Céline accompanies us to Pointe Escarpée and on several other trips around the island, on top of the family pick-up truck.
We are supposed to return, the following afternoon, to the capital Nouméa and it is she who leaves us at the airport but, as we have time, we stop by gite from William's sister who had taken care of the three children of the tab.
Resentment against the "settlers" that lingers in the Loyalty Islands
His welcome is also cordial, but the head of this family soon turns out to be an angry man, not happy with the visit of outsiders.
We sat on folk rugs and drank iced coffee. The conversation flows over a wide range of subjects, but the bearded kanak remains apart, alienated and suspicious. His posture is in stark contrast to that of his good-natured wife. She doesn't give a smile to sympathy, not even when Céline speaks.
Marjorie and Robert. A Franco-Kanak Couple Fighting for Life in Ouvéa
The time is approaching for us to go to Hulup airport but Celine makes a final stop at the gite of some artist neighbors who worry her. “They do what they can to hold on but it's not easy. They are very young, they already have a daughter and everything is so expensive here!
They go through a lot of difficulties with what they earn just selling the sculptures. On top of that, their house is poorly insulated. They are bitten too often and dengue torments them”.
Marjorie appears with her daughter Sanjana and shows us some tribal sculptures at her business stand. Shortly after, Robert appears, visibly sleepy and absorbed.
We confirmed Céline's information. These are children.
Marjorie is native, a little older. Robert has the blond and pure look of anyone Metro (born in mainland France). He hardly seems to have entered adolescence.
“His parents returned to Nouméa and made sure he went too.”, tells us Céline. "Never wanted." He loves Marjorie and the girl.
He steadied his feet and stayed, but they just survive. On top of that, they got used to smoking weed to alleviate the difficulties. It can be very complicated, life around here.”
We realized that freedom comes at a very high price in Ouvéa.
The Matignon accords provided for a referendum in the next few years. For the natives, the main question is how much this price will rise if New Caledonia, the Loyalty Islands and Ouvéa, in particular, decide to sacrifice French rule.