Why Are There Protests Against France in New Caledonia? - Latest Global News

Why Are There Protests Against France in New Caledonia?

Violent protests against new voting rules introduced by France, as well as looting and arson attacks, rocked the French Pacific island territory of New Caledonia for a third day, leaving at least four people dead. Hundreds more were injured as protesters clashed with security forces.

Observers say this is the worst violence New Caledonia has seen in 30 years.

So what is happening on the islands that make up the territory and what caused it?

How bad is the violence in New Caledonia?

Three indigenous people and a French security officer were among the victims of the violence until Thursday. More than 200 people were arrested and many protest leaders were placed under house arrest.

In addition to the protests, mobs looted stores and set fire to buildings and cars.

How did the authorities react?

On Thursday, France declared a 12-day state of emergency in the area and deployed around 500 additional military and police forces to quell unrest that has left the capital Noumea in turmoil. There are usually 1,800 police and gendarmes stationed in the area.

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

What triggered the riots?

Mass protests broke out 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. Members of Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favor of the new law, 351 votes to 153. The French government argues that this move “supports democracy” in the archipelago.

New Caledonia, with just over 300,000 inhabitants, lies between Australia and Fiji and is one of France’s largest overseas territories. It is an essential part of France’s claim as a Pacific power. But the indigenous Kanak people have long held a grudge against Parisian rule and say allowing French immigrants the right to vote would harm the chances of independence.

After France occupied the area in 1853, Paris deliberately repopulated it with French citizens, meaning that the Kanak communities now make up only 40 percent of the population, while the Caldoches – locals of predominantly French descent – make up about 25 percent. The rest of the population consists of newcomers from France, people from the French island territory of Wallis and Futuna and from Tahiti, and a mix of people from Indonesia, Vietnam and other Asian countries.

This week’s changes would add thousands of these new arrivals from France – at least 40,000 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 are seen in a supermarket in Noumea on May 16, 2024 [Delphine Mayeur/AFP]

Is there a strong independence movement in New Caledonia?

Tensions in the region over the issue of independence from France have long been simmering.

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 maintain close ties.

However, this week’s unrest represents an escalation of protests that have taken place in public squares in Noumea since February and into April, led by the hardline lobby group Coordination Unit for Actions on the Ground (CCAT). The group claims that around 80,000 protesters have gathered at various rallies in recent weeks.

Pro-independence supporters, including the Kanak and the Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), which includes several political parties, want the creation of a new nation, called “Kanaky” by their supporters.

Has there ever been unrest over the question of independence?

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

The agreement also paved the way for three independence referendums 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 independence supporters, arguing that the event took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Kanak communities.

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

Why is New Caledonia important for France?

France, which has increasingly lost influence in its former colonies in Africa, sees maintaining a stronghold in New Caledonia and indeed other overseas territories in the Indo-Pacific region as an essential part of its larger vision of maintaining 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 Réunion are in the Indian Ocean along with several others. A total of 1.65 million people live in these areas.

Paris sees the advantage for French companies in maintaining a strong presence in the region as well as access to key shipping routes.

France describes itself as a “balancing power” in regulating tensions between China and the US, particularly over Taiwan and the South China Sea, despite being a NATO ally of the US. With a permanent military presence in the region, Paris is able to respond in the event of a serious maritime conflict.

Residents set up a barricade in Noumea
A resident talks to a motorist at a makeshift barricade erected by residents with the aim of peacefully policing their neighborhood in Noumea’s Magenta district on May 16, 2024 [Theo Rouby/AFP]

What will happen next?

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

Nevertheless, the crackdown against demonstrators continues. On Thursday, Darmanin told France 2 television that 10 CCAT leaders were under house arrest, calling them a “problem.”

With tensions rising, it is unclear whether pro-independence supporters will now compromise, although the independence alliance FLNKS called for an end to the violence in a statement on Wednesday.

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