Three killed in riots after France backs New Caledonia vote changes

Two days of rioting rock the Pacific territory after France’s adoption of controversial electoral reforms.

At least three people have been killed in the worst unrest in New Caledonia in more than 30 years, as rioting continued and schools remained closed after France adopted controversial reforms to the Pacific territory’s voting rules.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday convened a defence and national security council meeting to discuss the riots, cancelling a scheduled trip to a French region.

His office said Macron will issue a decree declaring a state of emergency in the territory. The presidency confirmed that three people had been killed and a police officer was seriously injured.

“All violence is intolerable and will be the subject of an unyielding response to ensure the return of republican order,” the presidency said.

Macron wanted to get an “upper hand” on the situation, said Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Paris.

“What we’ve seen in New Caledonia over the past couple of nights are unrest and violence spreading,” she said.

“We know that overnight around 130 people were arrested, according to the French interior minister, shots were fired by some protesters at policemen.”

Hundreds injured

Despite heavily armed security forces fanning out across the capital, Noumea, and the ordering of a night-time curfew, rioting continued overnight virtually unabated. The curfew has now been extended until Thursday night, said Butler.

Buildings and cars had been “torched, set alight”, schools and other institutions had been shut for the next few days and no flights were taking off from the international airport, she added.

Hundreds of people, including “around 100” gendarmes, have been injured in the unrest, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on Wednesday in Paris.

In Noumea and the commune of Paita, there were reports of several exchanges of fire between civil defence groups and rioters.

Unrest wracks French-ruled Pacific island of New Caledonia
Charred cars and the remains of a Renault store amid riots in Noumea, New Caledonia [Theo Rouby/AFP]

On Wednesday, streets in the capital were pocked by the shells of burned-out cars and buildings, including a sports store and a large concrete climbing wall.

“Numerous arsons and pillaging of shops, infrastructure and public buildings – including primary and secondary schools – were carried out,” said the High Commission.

Security forces had managed to regain control of Noumea’s penitentiary, which holds about 50 inmates, after an uprising and escape attempt by prisoners, it said in a statement.

A night-time curfew was extended, along with bans on gatherings, the carrying of weapons and the sale of alcohol.

The territory’s La Tontouta international airport remained closed to commercial flights, and people were urged to restrict any travel during the day, the High Commission said.

Anger has been simmering for weeks over plans in Paris to change the constitution to allow more people to vote in New Caledonia’s provincial elections.

Critics say the move would marginalise the Indigenous Kanak people, who make up about 40 percent of the population, by allowing more recent European arrivals to vote.

France says the rules must be changed to support democracy on the island.

Indigenous Kanak
An independence supporter with a flag of the Socialist Kanak National Liberation Front painted on her cheek smiles in Noumea [File: Theo Rouby/AFP]

The National Assembly in Paris adopted the measure after a lengthy debate shortly after midnight, by 351 votes to 153.

Afterwards, Macron urged New Caledonian representatives in a letter to “unambiguously condemn all this violence” and “call for calm”, the AFP news agency reported.

A joint sitting of the National Assembly and the Senate is necessary for the new rules to take effect because they represent a constitutional change.

Long-running problems

New Caledonia, which has a population of nearly 300,000, lies between Australia and Fiji and is one of France’s biggest overseas territories.

About 17,000km (10,563 miles) from Paris, the territory is a key part of France’s claim as a Pacific power, but the Kanak people have long chafed at rule from Paris.

Denise Fisher, a former Australian consul general in New Caledonia, said she was not surprised at the violence of the past few days and told Al Jazeera it showed “a real and fundamental breakdown in the way the territory is being managed”.

The voting rules are part of the so-called Noumea Accord of 1998.

Under the deal, France agreed to cede the territory more political power and to limit voting in New Caledonia’s provincial and assembly elections to those who were residents of the island at the time.

About 40,000 French citizens have moved to New Caledonia since 1998, and the changes expand the electoral roll to include those who have lived in the territory for 10 years.

The Noumea Accord also included a series of three independence referendums, with the last one taking place in December 2021 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pro-independence groups boycotted the vote, which backed remaining in France, and rejected the result.

They have been calling for a new vote.

Urging calm

On Wednesday, the main pro-independence Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) urged calm and condemned the violence, calling in a statement for the rioters to return home.

Socioeconomic marginalisation, land dispossession and disenfranchisement of the Kanaks have long been a source of violent civil unrest in New Caledonia.

In a 1987 referendum, independence supporters, angered at recent residents of the territory being given the right to vote, also led a boycott.

The overwhelming vote in favour of remaining in France led to violent protests and, ultimately, to the 1988 Matignon Accord, aimed at rectifying inequality, and the Noumea Accord, with its vision of a “shared sovereignty”.

“The concerns are deep-seated,” Fisher said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies