France’s Macron delays New Caledonia voting reform after protests

President Emmanuel Macron meets political leaders on French-ruled Pacific island, says changes won’t be implemented ‘by force’.

French President Emmanuel Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron visits the central police station with French Interior and Overseas Minister Gerald Darmanin, behind Macron, and Armed Forces Minister Sebastien Lecornu, left, partially obscured, in Noumea, New Caledonia [Ludovic Marin/AFP]

French President Emmanuel Macron says he will delay a voting reform in New Caledonia that the Indigenous Kanak people on the French-ruled Pacific islands say would dilute their votes and undermine their struggle for independence.

Speaking on Thursday in New Caledonia’s capital, Noumea, after meeting local political leaders, Macron said his ultimate aim still was to sign the measure into law but only if peace returned and a broader pact on the island’s future could be forged.

“I am committed to ensuring that this reform will not be implemented by force,” he said in front of the French High Commission building.

Six people, including three young Kanaks, have been killed and about 280 people arrested since protests broke out a week and a half ago over the plans that would allow thousands more French residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years or more to vote.

Paris says the measure is needed to improve democracy. Almost a quarter of the population identifies as European, mainly French.

Leaders of the Kanaks want the reform rescinded over fears it would dilute their vote and make it harder for any future referendum on independence to pass.

Macron, who arrived on the island early on Thursday, said his immediate priority was to restore calm, reclaim areas hit by violence and disorder, and help bring about political dialogue.

About 3,000 soldiers have been sent from Paris since the violence began and could stay until the Olympic Games in Paris, which begin on July 26, Macron said.

Macron observed a minute of silence for the people who had been killed and said if roadblocks and barricades are removed, he would be opposed to extending the state of emergency.

“Within a month” he would take stock of the situation “and make decisions on the institutional follow-up to be given”, he added.

Macron said the voting reform had “democratic legitimacy” after being passed by lawmakers in Paris. He said there was no doubt over the legitimacy of a 2021 referendum that had showed an overwhelming majority against independence.

Pro-independence parties boycotted the plebiscite, and many Kanaks refused to participate, citing the COVID-19 pandemic and other reasons.

Other local leaders want the voting reform to be suspended to give time for a broader dialogue over the future of the islands.

French President Emmanuel Macron
Macron urged a ‘return to peace’ after deadly protests and said thousands of military reinforcements will be deployed for ‘as long as necessary’ [Ludovic Marin/AFP]

Electoral rolls were frozen by the 1998 Noumea Accord, which ended years of violence by outlining a path to gradual autonomy.

But the pact expired in 2021, and a Kanak boycott of the independence referendum led to a political impasse.

Source: News Agencies