Pacific Islands

France sends more police, seeks talks, to quell New Caledonia riots

May 15, 2024 6:12 am

[Source: Reuters]

France sent extra police squadrons to quell riots on the Pacific island of New Caledonia but also opened the door to a negotiated settlement with pro- and anti-independence groups.

Overnight, rioters burnt cars, dozens of businesses, clashed with police and set up barricades to protest against plans to allow more people to take part in local elections in the French-ruled territory, which indigenous Kanak protesters reject.

The proposed changes, which the National Assembly in Paris will vote on later on Tuesday, would allow French residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years to vote in provincial elections – a move local leaders fear will dilute the Kanak vote but the government says is needed so elections are democratic.

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“The streets were on fire, they were rioting in the streets, quite a frightening experience actually,” New Zealand tourist Mike Lightfoot told TVNZ television.

Despite a curfew, violence continued on Tuesday evening on the island, situated some 20,000 km (12,427 miles) from mainland France, local broadcaster NC La 1ere reported.

The island’s capital Noumea was covered by a cloud of black smoke, NC La 1ere said, adding that a local sport facility had been set ablaze. It also reported a riot in a prison.

One of five island territories spanning the Indo-Pacific held by France, New Caledonia is the word’s third-largest nickel producer and is the centrepiece of French President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to increase Paris’s influence in the Pacific.

Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said the vote should proceed in the afternoon as planned, but confirmed that Macron would not rush into convening a special congress of the two houses of parliament required to rubber-stamp the bill.
Instead, he would invite representatives of the territory’s population – both pro- and anti-independence – to Paris for talks on the future status of New Caledonia, after decades of tensions over France’s role.

“It’s through talking, and only through talking, that we can find a solution,” Attal told lawmakers. “All we want is to find an overall political agreement, with those in favour of and against independence.”

He did not spell out what such a deal could cover.


At a rally in Paris, pro-independence protesters said the bill should be withdrawn.

“If there is violence today (in New Caledonia), it’s in response to the violence we’ve suffered from since colonisation,” Kanak youth leader Daniel Wea, 43, told Reuters, saying the planned electoral changes would leave the Kanaks isolated on their island.

“We’re here to show … we will fight until we get what we want: independence,” said 24-year-old Wendy Gowe, whose grand-fathers died when violence flared up on the island in the 1980s.

New Caledonia is situated 1,500 km (930 miles) east of Australia, with a population of 270,000 including 41% Melanesian and 24% of European origin, mostly French.

A 1998 Noumea Accord helped end a decade of conflict by outlining a path to gradual autonomy and restricting voting to the indigenous Kanak as well as people who arrived in New Caledonia before 1998.

The accord allowed for three referendums, opens new tab to determine the future of the country. In all three, independence was rejected, but that did not end the debate over the island’s status or France’s role.

Meanwhile, French miner Eramet (ERMT.PA), opens new tab said its local unit SLN had raised its security level amid the unrest and that its plant was running at minimum capacity.

“Our mines are halted, just like the vast majority of mines in New Caledonia,” a spokesperson told Reuters.

Nickel miner Prony Resources said it activated a crisis unit to “maintain our industrial facilities and prevent any damage to our assets”.

The French government has been negotiating a rescue package for the loss-making New Caledonian nickel sector, including a commitment to supply Europe’s battery supply chain, but talks have stalled amid current political tensions.