Pro- and anti-independence demos in New Caledonia split French island group


Around 40,000 demonstrators, half of them loyal to France, the other half pro-independence protesters, took to the streets in Nouméa on Saturday. The protest took aim at a planned expansion of the electoral list ahead of provincial elections later this year in New Caledonia, a French overseas territory in the Pacific.

The constitutional bill, which allows residents who have lived at least ten years in the territory to be elected, is currently under parliamentary review fuelling tensions between supporters and opponents of the island group's independence from France.

The demonstrators gathered in Nouméa's city centre, and were kept separated by law enforcement officers.

Increasing democratic participation of local inhabitants has put pro-independence groups at loggerheads with those who want to keep strong ties with Paris, and communication between the groups has stalled, in spite of Paris' efforts for intensified dialogue.

"This is France," said Guillaume (17,) a resident of Koumac, in the north of Grande-Terre. "We've voted 'no' to independence three times. If the independence supporters didn't want to vote, that's their problem," referring to the 2021 referendum that was boycotted by the opposition.

"Peace is threatened because the State has lost its impartiality," says Roch Wamytan, one of the leaders of the Union Calédonienne, the main independence party of the FLNKS (Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front). "It has touched a taboo and we must resist. Relaxing the electoral roll means death."

Independence supporters, claim that the law "breaks with the fundamental rules that have established peace in this country," according to Dominique Fochi, the general secretary of the Union Calédonienne.

The relaxation of electoral regulations embedded in the constitutional bill could disrupt political balance set in 1998 after a period of violence and civil war.

The provincial elections determine party representation in New Caledonia's Congress, the territory's legislative body, and Paris delayed them in March to allow the constitutional changes to take effect, until "15 December (2024) latest."

According to a Senate report, introduction of the bill means that the electoral roll will increase by 14.5%, adding 12,441 native New Caledonians and 13,400 French citizens who have been living in the territory continuously for at least ten years.

(With newswires)