Explained | Why are there riots occurring in New Caledonia, France's Oceania territory?

New Caledonia is the world's third-largest nickel producer and is the centrepiece of French President Emmanuel Macron's plan to increase Paris's influence in the Pacific.
Last Updated : 15 May 2024, 13:03 IST
Last Updated : 15 May 2024, 13:03 IST

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Unrest across the Pacific Island of New Caledonia saw the death of three people, as the rioting continued, and stores and schools remained shut on Wednesday. The three dead were young indigenous Kanak, said a spokesman for French territory's president Louis Mapou.

But why are the citizens of the Pacific Island resorting to violence? What are these new rules that the French government voted in, inciting the anger of the indigenous people?

The build-up of tensions

New Caledonia is French overseas territory in the Pacific Ocean. It is the world's third-largest nickel producer and is the centrepiece of French President Emmanuel Macron's plan to increase Paris's influence in the Pacific.

Colonised by the French in 1853, there have been numerous unrests on the island in the past century, most of which were in demand for independence from France.

The last such violence resulted in the Nouméa Accord, which stated that the French would cede more political power to the island and limit the electoral roll for the local government elections to the citizens residing in the island at that time.

This meant new settlers post the signing date of the accords would not be added to the electoral roll, ensuring the indigenous Kanak had a significant say in the elections.

The aim of the accord was to eventually emancipate the territory over a 20-year period and hold a referendum for independence after such time.

In 2018, a referendum was held, where independence was rejected. Another one was held in 2020, with the same result, but a low margin of difference was observed.

In 2021, a third referendum was held, which was boycotted by the pro-independent groups of the island, citing the impact of Covid-19. As a result, the vote rejected independence by 96 per cent.

The ignition of the riots

Recently, the National Assembly in Paris adopted a measure to allow the new settlers of New Caledonia to be added to the electoral roll after a lengthy debate shortly after midnight, by 351 votes to 153, as reported by Al Jazeera.

The indigenous Kanak people currently make-up 40 per cent of the island's population of over 3,00,000 people but are a majority in the Noumea Accords electoral roll. Bringing in the new voting rules would marginalise the indigenous population.

Tensions had been simmering over the referendum of 2021, along with the long-standing fears and anger over socioeconomic marginalisation, land dispossession and disenfranchisement of the Kanaks. The voting rules change ignited these tensions and riots broke out.

Rioters burnt cars, houses and supermarkets, shot at police and set up barricades amid plumes of smoke, authorities said.

What next?

French President Macron and New Caledonia's president Louis Mapou called for calm and dialogue. France says the rules must be changed to support democracy on the island.

Macron has offered to hold dialogue between New Caledonia's pro- and anti-independence camps before a special congress of the two houses of parliament rubber-stamps the bill.

The major pro-independence political group, Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS), said in a statement on Wednesday it would accept Macron's offer of dialogue and was willing to work toward an agreement "that would allow New Caledonia to follow its path toward emancipation".

(With Reuters inputs)

Published 15 May 2024, 13:03 IST

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