France declares state of emergency in New Caledonia

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France has declared a state of emergency in its Pacific overseas territory of New Caledonia as it seeks to quell deadly riots sparked by a controversial electoral reform.

Four people, including one police officer, have died in unrest that has raged in the south Pacific archipelago this week despite the deployment of extra police and imposition of a curfew.

President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday condemned the “unacceptable violence” and called for the resumption of talks to negotiate a political solution to the crisis.

Declaring a state of emergency allows the government to restrict certain freedoms without judicial review, including banning protests, limiting travel, and carrying out searches.

The unrest began when the government pushed ahead with the electoral reform after several years of failed negotiations for an overall accord to reconcile New Caledonia’s pro- and anti-independence camps.

France has proposed expanding the right to vote in New Caledonian local elections to all citizens who have lived there for more than a decade, a change opposed by much of the indigenous Kanak population.

Provincial elections due this month were postponed to allow the French parliament to work on a constitutional amendment to change the voting laws, and the lower house passed a draft bill to that end on Tuesday.

If finalised, the move would override the Nouméa Accord of 1998, which brought political stability to New Caledonia for a quarter of a century in part by restricting the voting franchise to Kanaks and citizens who lived in the territory before the agreement.

French interior minister Gérald Darmanin on Tuesday insisted the government would not abandon or postpone the electoral reform, adding that 500 additional police officers had been sent to New Caledonia. “One cannot delay democracy,” Darmanin told RTL radio.

But Macron opened the door to a diplomatic solution in a letter sent to New Caledonian leaders from the pro- and anti-independence groups inviting them to Paris for negotiations. He offered to abandon the proposed voting change if the two sides agree a new status to define citizenship in the territory.

“Without such an accord, which I continue to call for and would be beneficial for all New Caledonians, then the Congress will meet in late June,” he wrote, referring to the last step in the process to change the French constitution.

Tensions between residents loyal to France and Kanaks who support independence for New Caledonia have worsened since a referendum on the issue in 2021. Those who took part overwhelmingly rejected independence, but many Kanaks boycotted the vote saying the Covid-19 pandemic made campaigning impossible.

New Caledonia’s economy has also been hit by a crisis in its all-important nickel mining industry. The territory, which lies 1,500km east of Australia and has a population of 270,000, is one of the world’s biggest nickel producers and gives France influence over a large maritime zone in the south Pacific.

Nouméa’s schools, businesses and airport were closed on Wednesday. Darmanin said hundreds of people had been injured and “dozens of homes and businesses burned down” in the violence.

Denise Fisher, a former Australian consul-general in New Caledonia who is now a visiting fellow at Australian National University, said the attempt to force an agreement by holding the vote in the French parliament had “backfired”.

Fisher said Macron’s call for calm this week risked inflaming the situation by including a commitment to push through the voter laws. “Frankly that is asking for trouble. I don’t think the violence is over,” she said.

New Zealand’s foreign minister Winston Peters cancelled a visit to New Caledonia this week and Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese warned Australian citizens in Nouméa that they should be vigilant.

Macron visited New Caledonia in 2023. Fisher said the territory was central to France’s claims to be a significant player in the Indo-Pacific. “Macron sees it as part of France’s mission as a global player. He can’t afford to be seen as weak,” she said.


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