Pacific Islands

Four dead in New Caledonia riots, France declares state of emergency

May 16, 2024 6:14 am

[Source: Reuters]

France declared a state of emergency on the Pacific island of New Caledonia yesterday after three young indigenous Kanak and a police official were killed in riots over electoral reform.

The state of emergency will give authorities additional powers to ban gatherings and forbid people from moving around the French-ruled island.

Police reinforcements have been sent – and more are on the way – after rioters torched vehicles and businesses and looted stores. Schools have been shut and there is already a curfew in the capital.

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Rioting broke out over a new bill, adopted by lawmakers in Paris on Tuesday, that will allow French residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years to vote in provincial elections – a move some local leaders fear will dilute the Kanak vote.

“Since the start of the week, New Caledonia has been hit by violence of a rare intensity,” said Prime Minister Gabriel Attal. “No violence will be tolerated,” he said, adding that the state of emergency “will allow us to roll out massive means to restore order.”

A spokeswoman said Attal had presented to the government a decree to declare the state of emergency and had called on all parties to restart political dialogue. The state of emergency will last for 12 days, she added.

Earlier in the day, a spokesman for New Caledonia’s President Louis Mapou said that three young indigenous Kanak had died in the riots. The French government later announced that a 24-year-old police official had died from a gunshot wound.

“He took off his helmet (to speak to residents) and he was shot right in the head,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said.

“Residents are terrorised, armed and organising themselves to make the rounds tonight and protect their homes,” said Lilou Garrido Navarro Kherachi, 19, who drove around protester blockades on Wednesday morning in the capital Noumea.

She said she heard gunfire and saw burning cars and buildings, including a ruined veterinary clinic where neighbours had evacuated the animals before the fire spread.

Police were outnumbered by protesters, she told Reuters.

Electoral reform is the latest flashpoint in a decades-long tussle over France’s role in the mineral-rich island, which lies in the southwest Pacific, some 1,500 km (930 miles) east of Australia.

France annexed the island in 1853 and gave the colony the status of overseas territory in 1946. It has long been rocked by pro-independence movements.


New Caledonia is the world’s No. 3 nickel miner and residents have been hit by a crisis in the sector, with one in five living under the poverty threshold.

“Politicians have a huge share of responsibility,” said 30-year-old Henri, who works in a hotel in Noumea. “Loyalist politicians, who are descendents of colonialists, say colonisation is over, but Kanak politicians don’t agree. There are huge economic disparities,” he said.

Henri, who declined to give his full name, said there was significant looting, with the situation most dangerous at night.

The French government has said the change in voting rules was needed so elections would be democratic.

But it said it would not rush calling a special congress of the two houses of parliament to rubber-stamp the bill and has invited pro- and anti-independence camps for talks in Paris on the future of the island, opening the door to a potential suspension of the bill.

The major pro-independence political group, Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS), which condemned the violence, said it would accept Macron’s offer of dialogue and was willing to work towards an agreement “that would allow New Caledonia to follow its path toward emancipation”.

Most residents were staying indoors.

Witness Garrido Navarro Kherachi said she moved to New Caledonia when she was eight years old, and has never been back to France. Although eligible to vote under the new rules, she says she won’t “out of respect for the Kanak people”.

“I don’t feel I know enough about the history of Caledonia and the struggle of the Kanak people to allow me to vote,” she said.