“The word ‘independence’ is out of date”: Christian Karembeu

The 1998 world football champion, from New Caledonia, talks about the self-determination vote, the problems of the archipelago and his Kanak roots.

Christian Karembeu has New Caledonia in the blood. The world football champion, born in 1970 on the island of Lifou, closely follows the situation of the archipelago whose inhabitants are called to vote for or against independence in a referendum on Sunday, November 4.

He migrated to the metropolitan in France in 1988, the year of the tragic hostage taking of the Ouvéa cave, Kanak has always defended its culture and its roots. Today ambassador of FIFA in Oceania and sports director of the Greek club Olympiakos Piraeus, the former player has agreed to answer questions from franceinfo a few days before the election.

Franceinfo: You have repeatedly expressed your attachment to Kanak culture, are you in favor of the independence of New Caledonia?

Christian Karembeu: We must first put the story in place, from the beginning until today. Why is there a desire for independence? I think France knows it very well. This is part of the process, since the agreements of Matignon [in 1988] and those of Noumea [in 1998] until today, everything has been signed by the different parties. Today, the word “independence” is obsolete. We will be independent of what? The ideology at the beginning is to give the country to the natives. But today, we have a new generation, which has not experienced violence and this desire for independence, cultural emancipation and identity. The word “independence” is out of date today.

At the time of globalization, we interact, we trade with those around us in the region: Japan, Korea, China, Australia … The economic reality is there, and metropolitan France is quite far away. On the other hand, there is always a problem with the cost of living. Food and products are always very expensive compared to the cost of living in New Caledonia. If you buy a car in France, it is five times cheaper than in New Caledonia. It means everything.

In your opinion, this independence is therefore inevitable?

In fact, one must first rewrite, relearn the history of the country. Before going to vote, all people living in New Caledonia should know the history of the “pebble”. There are fundamentals to respect. There have been two settlements in the history of France: Algeria and New Caledonia. At some point, you have to know the story. Algeria has experienced bloodshed, deportation, imprisonment, murder, violence … It has happened almost the same in New Caledonia with a small civil war, so to speak.

We must understand why we got there. And that, the new generation may not know it. It is necessary that in the schools, one should learn the history of the country, because in my youth and that of my father, it was General de Gaulle and our ancestors, the Gauls who were on the program. We must rewrite history and deepen with the new generations. The actors of this country, who have lived here for 200 years, also have the right to speak. And the desire of some to stay with France is understandable. But again, we must know the history of each other.

Do you support the “yes” to independence?

It does not matter if it’s “yes” or “no”. Me, it’s the future that interests me. My whole family lives on the island. From time to time, I will see them. All my roots are there and I want the people I love, to live well. We have everything for that: no famine, no illness. Then, if one thinks of independence, one must find political solutions. The word democracy must appear somewhere, because it is important to avoid authoritarian power with a dictator.

But the political parties that exist in New Caledonia return their jackets every time. So I’m fine, that’s enough. In order to achieve independence or a normal political life, some politicians must propose ideas for the country as a whole. When France set up in 1988 the three provinces [the southern province, the northern province and the province of the Loyalty Islands], it was also a way of dividing the country. But if you want to build a country, you have to achieve unity.

For the proper conduct of the voting, it would also be necessary to identify the people on the island, because it has been years since we have had a census. Before going to the polls, you have to know who’s there, since when. For now, it’s a French territory and with immigration, it can happen to many people, which can distort the results of the ballot boxes. There is a law that has been made [to set the conditions for access to the referendum], but nothing has ever been done at the census level.

The polls gave the “no” largely in mind. How do you explain it?

I think it’s about jobs, about health … It’s unfortunate to see that there are poor people in my country, while our resources would allow us to be among the world’s first. How is it that they have been badly shared? I do not know, but nickel has been exploited for 200 years and that does not belong to New Caledonia and its people. There are things to rectify.

The recent history of the archipelago has sometimes been marked by violence between communities. Do not you fear a return of this phenomenon?

I do not hope so. We are quite intelligent and we advocate living together in the country, life in community. “If you’re not here, I’m not here”: it’s our leitmotif in New Caledonia.

And with independence, do not scare people. Independence is being free, but together. It does not mean to separate. Some political parties advocate these ideas, with a separation of communities. But it’s completely wrong. Independence means wanting to be free in relation to a system or a government, and to want to be gathered in a country that has been built together for years and years. We live in this country. We can make it a model in the Pacific.

Some problems seem difficult to solve …

There is indeed work left. An example: when I organize tournaments in New Caledonia, I make the finals in the north of the island [mostly inhabited by Kanaks and more disadvantaged]. But most children, like their parents, are afraid to go. There are still some gray areas to clear up in this country. The living together must be felt, without resentment of the past, without communitarianism. Because on arrival, everyone stays at home, we do not meet, we do not discuss … A country is not built like that.

Some of the Kanaks seem torn between their culture of origin and a more individualistic operation brought from the metropolis, do you feel it?

Yes, it’s totally normal. We tried to standardize from a capitalist and European system. We have standardized food, ideas … and on arrival, everyone should do the same thing. You can not come to a country and say, “We have to do it like this, because it’s right and justice.” We must take into account who is there and see how he lives.

When we come to school and we can not learn the history of our country, that means everything. When you are in Cuba, you first talk about Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, before talking about the United States. And in all other countries, it’s the same. But with us, no. To go towards independence, we must first know who we are.

When you arrived in France in 1988, what made you feel the most about your life in New Caledonia?

In 1988, I arrived at the time of the troubles which raged in New Caledonia, with the Ouvéa group, etc… I lived, I saw … and I remember in particular the communication of journalists very pro-French in relation to these events. We were talking about bandits, rebels, they were bad. For me, they are cousins, brothers. I lived with them, I know how it goes.

In 1998, before the World Cup, a controversy erupts when you declare to play with France to be “a showcase” for your “people and their problems”. Looking back, would you say the same thing today?

I wore the jersey of the Blues with a lot of pride. But when I speak at that time, I know the history of my country. I almost died in this context. At age 15-16 years, we do demonstrations and students were killed and I was in these demonstrations, and the ball could have … Well, that’s part of my youth. I lost friends, family.

Me, football has given me the strength to be there today and to continue through my sport to transmit the desire for freedom. France has also experienced this desire for freedom, she went to the streets, she made the revolution. It was also our case when we demonstrated, when we organized non-violent marches and we were gassed by tear gas. We advocated freedom. Democracy and freedom of expression were in France, and in New Caledonia, I could not walk in the street, I could not march.

There are contradictions that I did not understand. So I used this freedom of expression. It’s democracy. Obviously, this can be hard to hear, but they are truths. Same on Moruroa, when I spoke against nuclear tests. When I speak, I am nature, I am sincere.

You have also always refused to sing La Marseillaise . Your position has not changed?

My father – peace to his soul – was a school teacher. That meant everything for him in the National Education. When we talk about La Marseillaise, we must know that in all the schools of New Caledonia, it is an obligation to know the Marseillaise, the cartography of France and the history of France. It was necessary to stand in a column before entering the school and greet the flag. Do we do that in France? No.

So it was a sign of protest?

Yes, like my hair. As my father often cut my hair, I let them grow. It also allowed me to show who I was as an individual. After obviously, La Marseillaise I have it in the skin and I can sing it. But simply, as a top athlete, it was difficult to put on this jersey with great pride and at the same time to represent a country that had killed family members and friends. It was difficult, but it’s like that. This is my story and that of my two countries.

Would you like to return to live in New Caledonia?

I have everything there. I visit often my family, I have my land, I have my box on the spot – as they say in my jargon. I hope to return one day. I’ll go with my grandchildren, we’ll say that [laughs].

Are you thinking of getting into politics, like other footballers like George Weah?

[Laughs] No, I prefer to stay in my position and wake up the consciousness of abuse and injustice. I saw what politics did at home, and that’s why I can denounce. I prefer to stay in that role for now. After, we’ll see … these are very deep subjects. We must have time to think, because a policy is also a philosophical thought.