Why are protests against France raging in New Caledonia?

Recent demonstrations against local election reforms by France have turned violent and prompted a lockdown.

Burnt out vehicles in Noumea
Burned-out cars in the car park of the old hospital on the outskirts of Noumea on May 16, 2024 [Delphine Mayeur/AFP]

Violent protests against new voting rules imposed by France, along with looting and arson attacks, have rocked the French Pacific Islands territory of New Caledonia for a third day, causing the deaths of at least four people, with hundreds more injured as demonstrators clash with security forces.

This is the worst violence New Caledonia has seen in 30 years, observers say.

So, what is happening on the islands which make up the territory and what has caused it?

How bad is the violence in New Caledonia?

Three indigenous people were among those who had been killed in the violence by Thursday, along with one French security official. More than 200 people have been arrested and many protest leaders placed under house arrest.

As well as protests, mobs have looted shops and set buildings and cars on fire.

How have the authorities responded?

On Thursday, France declared a state of emergency in the territory, to last for 12 days, and deployed some 500 additional military and police personnel in an attempt to quell the unrest which has thrown the capital, Noumea, into disarray. There are usually 1,800 police and gendarmes stationed in the territory.

The island’s authorities have also imposed a curfew, shut down the busy La Tontouta airport, closed schools and banned the use of the social media platform, TikTok, as well as public gatherings.

What prompted the riots?

Mass protests erupted on Tuesday after the French parliament passed reforms to local provincial elections in New Caledonia, allowing French residents who have lived there for 10 years or more to vote. Parliament members voted overwhelmingly in favour of the new law by a vote of 351 – 153. The French government argues that this move “supports democracy” in the group of islands.

New Caledonia, which has a population of slightly more than 300,000, lies between Australia and Fiji and is one of France’s biggest overseas territories. It forms a key part of France’s claim as a Pacific power. However, the Indigenous Kanak people have long resented Parisian rule, and say allowing French incomers to vote would hamper its chances of gaining independence.

After France occupied the territory in 1853, Paris purposefully populated it with French citizens, meaning Kanak communities now make up only 40 percent of the population, while the Caldoches – local people of mostly French descent – make up about 25 percent. The rest of the population is made up of newer French arrivals, people from the French island territory of Wallis and Futuna and from Tahiti, as well as a mix of people from Indonesia, Vietnam and other Asian countries.

This week’s changes would add thousands of these newer French arrivals – at least 40,000 have arrived since 1998 according to official figures – to the country’s electoral list, which Indigenous groups say will undermine their push for self-rule.

Empty shelves in shops in Noumea
Empty shelves are seen at a supermarket in Noumea on May 16, 2024 [Delphine Mayeur/AFP]

Is there a strong independence movement in New Caledonia?

Tensions have long simmered in the territory over the question of independence from France.

Some political groups, such as the conservative, anti-separatist political party, The Rally, which holds only a handful of seats in government, are loyal to France and want to keep strong ties.

However, this week’s riots represent an escalation of the protests that have been held around public squares in Noumea since February and through April, led by the hardline lobby group, Coordination Unit for Actions on the Ground (CCAT). The group claims around 80,000 protesters have gathered at separate rallies in recent weeks.

Pro-independence groups including the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), which includes multiple political parties, want the creation of a new nation that supporters call “Kanaky”.

Has there been unrest over the question independence before?

Similar unrest in the 1990s led to the Noumea Accords of 1998, under which Paris promised to grant more political power to the territory and its Indigenous population over 20 years.

The accord also paved the way for three referendums on independence which were held in 2018, 2020 and 2021. In all three, the majority voted to stick with France, although many point out that the last vote in 2021 was boycotted by pro-independence groups who argued that it was held during the COVID-19 pandemic which disproportionately affected Kanak communities.

Rejecting independence meant France continued to control New Caledonia’s military, immigration, foreign policy, economy and elections.

Why is New Caledonia important to France?

France, which has increasingly lost influence in its former colonies in Africa, sees maintaining a stronghold in New Caledonia, and indeed, in other overseas territories in the Indo-Pacific region, as a key part of its larger vision to maintain a sphere of influence in the region.

French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, and Clipperton are among France’s other overseas territories in the Pacific Ocean while Mayotte and Reunion, along with several others, lie in the Indian Ocean. All together, these territories make up 1.65 million people.

Paris sees the benefit for French companies in maintaining a strong presence in the region, as well as access to important shipping lanes.

France describes itself as a “balancing power” in the regulation of tensions between China and the US, especially over Taiwan and the South China Sea, though it is a NATO ally of the US.  With a permanent military presence in the region, Paris is positioned to react in the case of a serious maritime conflict.

residents set up a barricade in Noumea
A resident speaks to a motorist at a temporary barricade, set up by residents with the aim of keeping watch over their neighbourhood in a peaceful manner, in the Magenta district of Noumea on May 16, 2024 [Theo Rouby/AFP]

What will happen next?

President Emmanuel Macron called for “calm” and “face-to-face dialogue” this week. He has ordered the French prime minister, Gabriel Attal, and Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin to start talks with anti-France political parties in New Caledonia, where many appear to feel the Noumea Accords have expired.

Despite this, the crackdown on protesters continues. On Thursday, Darmanin told France 2 Television that 10 CCAT leaders were under house arrest, and called them a “problem”.

With tensions spiralling, it’s unclear if pro-independence supporters will now compromise, despite a Wednesday statement by the pro-independence alliance, FLNKS, calling for an end to the violence.

Source: Al Jazeera