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NOUMEA, France: People walk next to a burnt-out car while a man (center) holds a flag of the Socialist Kanak National Liberation Front (FLNKS) after a supermarket was looted and shops vandalized in the N'Gea district of Noumea, on May 14, 2024. -- AFP
NOUMEA, France: People walk next to a burnt-out car while a man (center) holds a flag of the Socialist Kanak National Liberation Front (FLNKS) after a supermarket was looted and shops vandalized in the N'Gea district of Noumea, on May 14, 2024. -- AFP

Riots rock France’s New Caledonia over voting reform

NOUMEA: France’s prime minister on Tuesday urged the restoration of calm in New Caledonia after the French Pacific archipelago was rocked by a night of rioting against a controversial voting reform that has angered pro-independence forces.

Shots were fired at security forces vehicles torched and shops looted in the rioting, the worst such violence in New Caledonia since deadly unrest in the 1980s. More than 80 people were arrested.

New Caledonia, which lies between Australia and Fiji, is one of several French territories spanning the globe from the Caribbean and Indian Ocean to the Pacific that remain part of France in the post-colonial era. It already has special status within France unlike other overseas territories. And while it has on three occasions rejected independence in referendums independence retains support particularly among the indigenous Kanak people.

“Shots were fired at the gendarmes using high caliber weapons and hunting rifles. There have been no deaths,” High Commissioner of the Republic Louis Le Franc told reporters. Authorities announced a night-time curfew Tuesday and a ban on public gatherings while the main airport was closed and the government dispatched security reinforcements from mainland France.

“Violence is never a solution,” Prime Minister Gabriel Attal told reporters during a trip to eastern France, adding that the government’s “priority... is to re-establish order, calm and serenity” in New Caledonia. New Zealand said Tuesday Foreign Minister Winston Peters had cancelled his visit to New Caledonia due to the unrest.

One business group said around 30 shops, factories and other sites in and around capital Noumea had been set ablaze, while an AFP journalist saw burned-out cars and smoking remains of tyres and wooden pallets littering the streets. “The police station nearby was on fire and a car was too, in front of my house. There was non-stop shouting and explosions, I felt like I was in a war,” said Sylvie, whose family has lived in New Caledonia for several generations.

From late Monday night, groups of young masked or hooded demonstrators took over several roundabouts and confronted police, who responded with non-lethal rounds. Rioters attacked police stations with “sabers,” threw rocks or shot at them, police said.

A total of 82 people were arrested, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said, while Noumea authorities reported 51 police officers injured. Firefighters said they had received around 1,500 calls overnight and responded to 200 blazes.

“I feel sad,” Jean-Franck Jallet, who owns a butcher shop that firefighters managed to rescue from the flames. “I thought it was possible for us (islanders) to live side by side, but it hasn’t worked. There are too many lies.” Authorities urged around 30 rioters holed up in a burned factory on the outskirts of Noumea to leave, warning that hydrogen tanks in the building risked exploding.

The unrest erupted Monday as protesters demonstrated against a constitutional reform being debated in the National Assembly in Paris that aims to expand the electorate in the territory’s provincial elections. France vowed in the Noumea Accord of 1998 to gradually give more political power to the Pacific island territory of nearly 300,000 people.

Under the agreement, New Caledonia has held three referendums over its ties with France, all rejecting independence. Representatives of pro-independence Kanaks rejected the result of the last referendum held in 2021, which they boycotted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Noumea Accord has also meant that New Caledonia’s voter lists have not been updated since 1998 -- meaning that island residents who have arrived from mainland France or elsewhere anytime in the past 25 years do not have the right to take part in provincial polls. The French government has branded the exclusion of one out of five people from voting as “absurd”, while separatists fear that expanding voter lists would benefit pro-France politicians and reduce the weight of the Kanaks.

A parliamentary source told AFP that the lower house’s vote on the reform—the last hurdle before a constitutional convention to set it in stone—would go ahead Tuesday. President Emmanuel Macron has been seeking to reassert his country’s importance in the Pacific region, where China and the United States are vying for influence but France has a strategic footprint through its territories of New Caledonia and French Polynesia. – AFP

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