In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This act elevated the global profile and scholarly engagement with the subject of ‘indigenous people’ and yet the idea of indigenous cultures and rights is still met with resistance in France, both in French academia and among the public (Amselle 2010). Interestingly, research has found that this resistance or discomfort with indigeneity is also shared by the peoples of New Caledonia and French Polynesia, two French territories in Oceania whom one would expect to identify with the category of ‘indigenous’ (Gagné 2015). It is worth investigating therefore how the experiences of indigenous peoples of the French territories in Oceania differ radically from those of other ‘indigenous peoples,’ such as the Amerindians and the Inuit of North America, the Māori of New Zealand, and the Aborigines of Australia. One way to understand these differences is through the legacy of French colonial and geopolitical history. This history extends to the present day where it complicates the role and recognition of indigenous peoples in France’s Climate efforts.
Firstly, unlike settler states such as Canada and New Zealand which grew out of colonies, mainland France and other old European countries have no territorial memory of their original inhabitants. In addition, the existence of the indigenous peoples whose territories are still part of France’s national territory even after the wave of independence movements in the 1960s – that is the Mā‘ohi of French Polynesia, the Kanak of New Caledonia, the Amerindians of Guyana, the Mahorais of Mayotte, and the Pacific Islanders of Wallis and Futuna – are largely overlooked (Trépied 2012). Their small numbers in mainland France reinforce their social and cultural invisibility compared with immigrants from former French colonies such as Algeria. In addition, the word ‘indigenous’ or ‘indigènes’ in French evokes the inferior legal status of the indigènes as the ‘native subjects’ of the French Colonial Empire from 1887 to 1946. “After 1946, the term ‘autochtone’ was often used as a euphemism to designate the population previously defined as indigènes, even though the Fourth Republic (Constitution of 27 October 1946) eliminated the status of ‘subjects’ and extended the rights of the citizens to all inhabitants of the former colonies, which were renamed overseas departments and territories. The negative connotation of the categories indigènes and – albeit to a lesser extent, autochtones – still prevails because of their political, symbolic and historic importance in French colonial history” (Gagné 2019).
Secondly, the concept of distinct indigenous communities also challenges the idea of the indivisibility of the French Republic – one people, one language, one source of law, and one system of human rights and freedom – dating back to the French revolution (Lemaire 2012). In French public debate, ‘communities’ are often associated with social and political tensions. There is a reluctance to value or even recognise any sub-national collective identity. According to official understanding, “being a citizen of the French Republic means being a member of the national community, which has no ethnic foundation and nothing to do with ancestry, a ‘blood right’ (jus sanguinis) or belonging to a particular group on the basis of race, ethnicity or religion” (Gagné 2019). While many English-speaking societies are comfortable thinking of themselves as a federation of culturally distinct communities, the French Republic remains firmly grounded in the universalist thinking of the Enlightenment and regards itself as a single national community of equal citizens. Furthermore, any religious or spiritual discourse associated with indigenous communities transgresses the concept of laïcité or secularism which rigidly enforces the separation of church and state in French public life.
At present, the French Republic includes five indigenous groups: the Amerindians of Guyana, the Mahoris of Mayotte, the Kanaks of New Caledonia, and the Pacific islanders of Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia, all of whom acquired full citizenship between the 1940s and the 1960s. Today, they represent an extreme minority of the national population: around 100,000 people in Mayotte, 100,000 in New Caledonia, 13,000 in Wallis and Futuna and 10,000 in Guyana (Trépied 2012). Like many indigenous cultures, they are deeply connected with their lands and the natural world. This affinity makes them natural conservationists and the United Nations Environment Program encourages indigenous peoples to be recognized as vital stewards of our environment and its fast-depleting resources. Indigenous peoples are often also on the front lines of the climate crisis, such as in Oceania where they face rising sea levels, coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion, the results of which are violations of indigenous peoples’ fundamental human rights to water, food, housing, and health. The recognition of indigenous peoples as both a community of environmental stewards as well as front-line victims of climate change however is complicated by the French state’s reluctance to recognize the collective rights, including rights to lands and self-determination of indigenous peoples in French overseas departments such as in French Guyana and New Caledonia. Even as a signatory to the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, France has long argued that their constitution, and the principle of indivisibility of the French people, is incompatible with the recognition of collective rights of indigenous peoples and local communities.
One can argue that France’s aversion to recognizing the collective rights of indigenous peoples amongst the French citizenry has impacted their willingness to include issues of land rights, self-determination and human rights violations in environmental policy. In December 2022 for example, negotiations were drawing to a close on a new EU Regulation on deforestation-free supply chains. Once adopted and applied, the new law will ensure that a set of key goods placed on the EU market (such as cocoa, soy, wood, oil palm and more) will no longer contribute to deforestation and forest degradation in the EU and elsewhere in the world.
According to reporting by the Forest Peoples Programme, an international human rights organization supporting forest peoples around the world, France was attempting to block the inclusion of protection of the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, including customary tenure rights and the right to free, prior and informed consent. Reporting such as this complicates prior statements by President Emmanuel Macron who met with indigenous leaders in Brazil in 2019 and stated “France is naturally committed to the fight against deforestation and defends the rights of indigenous peoples, in particular as key players in the preservation of forests and biodiversity, and therefore committed to the fight against climate change.” This sentiment however is found lacking in the new EU regulation on deforestation-free supply chains which fails to require companies to ensure that goods are produced by international human rights laws and respect for Indigenous Peoples’ rights.
While the European Parliament voted in September to make respect for international human rights norms and standards on land rights, such as the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), a prerequisite for importing products into the EU, in the final agreement, companies will only have to verify compliance with such rights if they are enshrined in the relevant legislation of the country of production. Furthermore, the law fails to provide a route for victims to obtain compensation from companies that violate the law. According to FERN, a non-profit explanatory and investigative journalism network covering food and agriculture, this policy essentially prioritizes trees over people by “failing to ensure that products placed on the EU market comply will international human rights laws on Indigenous Peoples” and “missing the chance to signal to the world that the most important solution to stopping deforestation is upholding Indigenous’ rights.”
This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard France Country Manager Liana Mehring
Learn More References
AFP, Le Monde avec. “Emmanuel Macron Assure Le Chef Amazonien Raoni Du Soutien De La France.” Le Monde.fr, Le Monde, 16 May 2019, https://www.lemonde.fr/planete/article/2019/05/16/emmanuel-macron-assure-le-chef-indigene-raoni-du-soutien-de-la-france_5463077_3244.html.
Amselle, J-L. 2010. Rétrovolutions. Essais sur les primitivismes contemporains. Paris: Stock.
Fern. “EU Law on Deforestation: Policy Makers Prioritise Trees over People.” Fern, Fern, 7 Dec. 2022, https://www.fern.org/publications-insight/eu-law-on-deforestation-policy-makers-prioritise-trees-over-people/.
Forest Peoples Programme. https://www.forestpeoples.org/.
France: The Last Barrier to Forest Peoples’ Protection in EU Law. https://www.forestpeoples.org/en/article/2022/France-last-barrier-forest-protection-EU-law.
Gagné, N. 2015. Brave new words: The complexities and possibilities of an ‘Indigenous’ identity in French Polynesia and New Caledonia. The Contemporary Pacific 2 (27): 371– 402.
Lemaire, F. 2012. L’outre-mer, l’unité et l’indivisibilité de la République. Les nouveaux cahiers du Conseil constitutionnel 35(2): 95-109.
Natacha Gagné, Mélanie Roustan. French Ambivalence Towards the Concept of ‘Indigenous People’: Museums and the Māori. Anthropological Forum: A Journal of Social Anthropology and Comparative Sociology, 2019, 29 (2), pp.95-115. ff10.1080/00664677.2019.1587591ff. ffhalshs-02276995f
Trépied, B. 2012. A new indigenous question in France’s overseas territories? Books & Ideas. https://booksandideas.net/A-New-Indigenous-Question-in.html, accessed 12 February 2019.
Image Courtesy of: Kanak Culture, New Caledonia Copyright: ©Oliver Strewe/NCTPS