Violent Protests Occur in New Caledonia Capital Due to New Constitutional Law

On May 13th, protesters from pro-independence parties and police clashed in the city of Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia. The protests occurred due to the French Parliament tabled a constitutional amendment that will expand who can vote in local elections in the overseas French territory.

Protests and Riots 

The unrest began on May 13th when a pro-independence Field Action Coordination Committee (CCAT) aligned with the Union Caledonienne party (UC), one of the main components of the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), organized demonstrations and marches throughout the island group and several protesters clashed with police during the demonstrations, with most clashes occurring in the capital’s suburbs, such as the villages of Mont-Dore and Saint Louis. The protesters blocked and burned several vehicles on roadways throughout the capital and burned several cars at dealerships near La Tontouta International Airport. Multiple buildings and factories were also looted and set on fire throughout the day, such as the Stade Numa-Daly Magenta and Decathlon sports goods store.

Stade Numa-Daly Magenta located in the capital city of Noumea on fire during rioting over constitutional amendment (Photo: Nouvelle-Calédonie la 1ere/Aiata Tarahu)

Prisoners at Noumea’s main prison, Camp Est, briefly took three guards’ hostage during a failed prison riot amid the protests. However, local authorities deployed a RAID special intervention unit to the prison before the prisoners released the hostages and surrendered. One of the three guards received serious injuries and was sent to a local hospital. Reports also indicate that protesters fired live ammunition from “high power rifles” at riot police during several clashes. The clashes resulted in at least 70 gendarmes and police officers being injured and at least 48 protesters being arrested.

Cars at dealership near set on fire by protesters during riots on May 13th (Photo: Nouvelle-Calédonie la 1ere/Olivier Gelin)

The territory’s High Commission issued a statement condemning the riots, the destruction of property, and the attacks against people. The Commission implemented a curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. local time and banned all gatherings in the capital and surrounding area. The Commission also prohibited the sale of alcohol and the transportation and carrying of weapons throughout the territory. Authorities cancelled all flights at the airport until May 16th.

Translated press release from the New Caledonia High Commissioner about the May 14th rioting and curfews (Photo: X, @AusCGNoumea)

Authorities reported further clashes in the Noumea area on May 14th, with several protesters blocking roadways, burning, and looting buildings throughout the evening. Furthermore, authorities also reported that the rioters destroyed public infrastructure and public establishments such as schools and universities. Local authorities mobilized four mobile gendarme units to the suburbs surrounding Noumea, and France also deployed two GIGN squadrons from French Polynesia to assist local security forces. Prisoners staged another riot at Camp Est during the evening, but local security forces regained control of the situation. Residents formed groups to defend their neighborhoods against looters and rioters. Local authorities said that police arrested at least 130 rioters, around 60 gendarmes and police officers were injured, and three people died.

The Commissioner, Louis Le Franc, extended the measures the High Commission implemented on May 13th, such as the curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. local time for the capital and surrounding area. However, the National Assembly proceeded with its plans to examine and vote on the draft amendment. The president of the UC-FLNKS and the head of the organization’s Union Nationale pour l’Independance (UNI) group condemned the violence and destruction of property. Both individuals stated that CCAT, or any organization aligned with it, is not responsible for organizing the rioters. The UNI head said that the lack of political awareness among young people was the cause of the riots and called for calm and dialogue to take hold. The French government also declared a statement of emergency for territory in response to the rioting.

Constitutional Amendment 

France began efforts to change the constitution to expand voter eligibility in early April 2024, when the French Parliament’s upper house, the Senate, endorsed the amendment. The amendment then went to the National Assembly, where the House’s Law Commission debated the “value of the proposed constitutional amendment” on May 7th. The assembly then debated the merits of passing the law on May 13th and voted to approve it the next day. Both houses will then hold a special Congress in June or July to approve the amendment, which requires a majority of 3/5 of the votes to become law.

The amendment is designed to remove the restrictions that prevented French citizens who moved to New Caledonia after the 1998 Noumea Accord. The frozen electoral roll means that only New Caledonian citizens and their children who registered on Special Electoral Lists for the Provinces (LESP) in 1998 have the right to vote in the three provincial assemblies and the territory’s local Congress. In 2007, both houses of the French Parliament held a special Congress where they voted to enshrine the freeze of the electoral roll into the French Constitution. However, the constitutional amendment would change the “frozen electoral roll” to a “sliding roll” that would allow French citizens who lived in the territory for a “minimum of ten uninterrupted years to vote.” The new sliding roll would enable approximately 25,000 new people to vote in the local elections.

Analysis

The protests and riots over the constitutional amendments stem from the Kanaks, an indigenous group native to New Caledonia, fearing that they will lose political and economic control to the French population. Furthermore, pro-independence groups such as the FLNKS also fear that the territory’s chances of gaining independence will decrease due to the French voters outnumbering the Kanaks, which they view as recolonizing the islands. New Caledonia has held three independence referendums since 1998, with the territory holding its final referendum in December 2021. The government conducted the vote despite calls from the pro-independence side to postpone the referendum to allow the local Kanak population to abide by their customary one-year mourning period for individuals who died from COVID-19.

However, both the government and anti-independence side argued the referendum should go ahead due to the population’s high vaccination rate, and pointed out that the pro-independence forces were previously in favor of holding the referendum during the pandemic. The pro-independence side also argued that the government and anti-independence sides used the COVID-19 pandemic to influence the population. The pro-independence side largely boycotted the 2021 referendum and did not recognize the vote due to the government deciding to hold the vote. Furthermore, the Kanak population viewed both the government and the anti-independence side as not respecting their local customs and traditions by holding the vote during their mourning period.

The Kanaks also fear that they will lose economic influence due to the potential for the new voters to elect politicians who would vote for laws that would favor French interests. They fear losing influence over the territory’s nickel industry, which they view as losing their economic sovereignty to France. For example, France and New Caledonia negotiated an agreement that the territory’s nickel industry would receive approximately $217 million USD (€200 million) in financial assistance from the French government. The territory would implement various reforms to make nickel more attractive on global markets by making it less expensive. However, pro-independence protesters demonstrated against the agreement and clashed with police at various nickel mines and processing sites in March.

They argued that the agreement would be tantamount to New Caledonia losing its sovereignty over its natural resources. In mid-April, pro-independence politicians in the territory’s congress resolved to begin a process to develop “alternative” proposals to the French plan. However, Congress members in favor of the pact urged the pro-independence politicians to vote in favor of the pact since it would save thousands of jobs that depend on the industry. Furthermore, pro-independence Prime Minister Louis Mapou also urged the pro-independence politicians to vote in favor of the agreement, stop “ignoring economic reality,” and turn the pact into a political issue.

The Kanaks fear they will lose the political influence they gained from the Noumea Accord since the new sliding roll would decrease their voting power by increasing the number of French voters. The Kanak population makes up around 40 percent, or 112,000, of the territory’s population of 300,000. The addition of 25,000 new voters would mean that the number of non-native voters would increase, which would further dilute the Kanaks’ voting power. The new French voters would further decrease the political influence the Kanaks currently have on New Caledonia’s political affairs. Furthermore, the voters would be more inclined to elect pro-French politicians who would be more likely to pass laws aligning with French interests than Kanaks’ interests. They would also be more inclined to vote against independence initiatives because they want New Caledonia to continue to be part of France.

Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin the panda began Sino Talk in 2022 primarily to give an objective, unbiased view on China related topics as well as other issues related to the Indo-Pacific region. He spent several years studying and traveling throughout China and many countries in the Indo-Pacific region. In another life, the panda was also a U.S. Marine intelligence analyst who enjoyed bamboo MREs and drinking bourbon and soju. Indo-Pacific Division Desk Chief for Atlas News.

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