‘Intolerable’: State of emergency in New Caledonia as unrest spreads

France is sending 1,000 additional security personnel to join 1,700 on the ground in bid to tackle situation.

France has declared a state of emergency in its Pacific Islands territory of New Caledonia and deployed police and military reinforcements in an attempt to end days of unrest over Paris’s move to change the rules on provincial elections.

Three Indigenous Kanak people and a police officer have been killed in violence that erupted on Monday night and has continued despite an overnight curfew. Hundreds have been injured.

The state of emergency came into force at 5am on Thursday (18:00 GMT on Wednesday) and gives the authorities wide powers of search and arrest.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said that France would send about 1,000 “additional security personnel” to join the 1700 staff already on the ground.

“The situation … is still very tense, with looting, riots, arson and assaults that are intolerable and unspeakable,” he said, after meeting President Emmanuel Macron.

The office of the high commissioner, which represents the French state in New Caledonia, said in a statement that five people had been placed under house arrest as “alleged sponsors of the violent disturbances” and that more searches would take place “in the coming hours”.

More than 200 “rioters” had been arrested, it added.

The authorities are “determined to quickly restore public order and take all necessary measures to protect the population of New Caledonia,” the statement said.

David Guyenne, president of the New Caledonia Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told Al Jazeera that the island was not “prepared” for the protests, which have had a dire effect on the local economy.

The state of emergency “is good for us”, he said. “We have found that those rioters are uncontrollable. They were manipulated, or they were incentivised by pro-independence politicians, and now they are totally out of control. That’s why we need to return to the state of law.”

Guyenne added that “hopefully” the situation would be under control soon as France deploys more soldiers.

The state of emergency will remain in force for 12 days.

Controversial reform

Anger has been simmering for weeks over plans to amend the French constitution to allow people who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years to vote in the territory’s provincial elections, diluting a 1998 accord that limited voting rights.

Many Indigenous Kanak people, who make up about 40 percent of the territory’s nearly 300,000 people, fear the move will undermine their position in the territory.

This week’s violence came as the National Assembly voted in Paris to adopt the measure. A joint sitting of the National Assembly and the Senate needs to be convened for the new rules to take effect because they represent a constitutional change.

New Caledonia, which lies some 1,500km (930 miles) east of Australia, was colonised by France in the 19th century.

People facing each other at a barricade in Noumea. There are three men with their backs to the camera with another man standing on the other side. The man is masked and wearing a hoodie. He is gesturing towards them.
Noumea residents watch an activist at a barricade across the entrance to Tuband, in the Motor Pool district of Noumea [Delphine Mayeur/AFP]

The last serious outbreak of unrest in the 1980s led to the 1998 agreement, known as the Noumea Accord, promising greater autonomy as well as three referendums on independence.

In all three, most recently in December 2021, voters opted to remain part of France.

Pro-independence parties boycotted the final referendum because it took place during the COVID-19 pandemic which had a devastating and disproportionate effect on the Kanak community.

There are large disparities of wealth between the Kanaks and people of European descent. About 40,000 people have moved to New Caledonia from France since the 1998 accord.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies