Deadly unrest in New Caledonia tied to old colonial wounds

By Alison Hird - RFI

New Caledonia, the French overseas territory in the southwest Pacific, has been rocked by its most violent clashes since the 1980s. While the unrest was triggered by constitutional changes to the voting system, it also highlights frustrations over the long process of decolonisation.

Deadly rioting broke out in the New Caledonian capital, Noumea, on 13 May as Paris prepared to vote on imposing new rules that could give voting rights to tens of thousands of non-indigenous residents.

Under legislation agreed as part of the 1998 Noumea Accord, which paved the way for decolonisation, the right to vote in provincial elections and local referendums was limited to natives and those who had arrived on the archipelago before 1998, along with their children.

The idea was to give greater representation to the indigenous Kanaks, who had gradually become a minority population following waves of European migration.

Kanaks now make up around 44 percent of the territory's 270,000 inhabitants. Thirty-four percent are Europeans (mostly French), with the rest made up of other minority groups including Wallisians and Tahitians.

Excluded from voting

The voting restrictions effectively excluded new arrivals to the territory and those born there after 1998 – around 20 percent of the current population.

Paris has come to view this as undemocratic. On 14 May a majority of lawmakers, mainly from the right and far right, approved a constitutional amendment to “unfreeze” the electoral roll, so it would include people who have lived in New Caledonia for at least 10 years.

“It amounts to about 25,000 more citizens on the electoral roll, mainly French from the mainland,” explains Isabelle Merle, a historian of colonialism specialising in New Caledonia.

While pro-independence parties have agreed to extending provincial election voting rights to those born in the territory, they fear allowing recent arrivals to vote will shrink their political representation in local institutions.

“It's a very big change because it would completely modify the balance in the country," Merle told RFI, adding that supporters of independence risked becoming a minority within the government.

In provincial elections later this year, voters will choose the elected representatives of the country's three provincial assemblies: the Loyalty Islands, South and North.

There's a lot at stake. The number of seats in the assemblies impacts the distribution of seats in the territory's parliament (Congress), which in turn appoints the president of the New Caledonian government.

Fragile majority

New Caledonia became a French overseas territory in 1946 and has limited autonomy within the French legal system.

The French president is the head of state. Since 2021 it has its own head of government.

Though Paris remains in charge of big portfolios such as defence, internal security, immigration and foreign policy, many powers and responsibilities have been devolved over the last 30 years. 

Congress has power over taxation, labour law, social welfare and health, among others.

New Caledonia has been on the UN decolonisation list since 1986, based on the Kanak people's internationally recognised right to self-determination, and its institutions will play an important role in achieving that goal.

But while pro-independence politicians now hold a majority in the government with six out of 11 members, “it's a fragile majority”, Merle points out.

Contested referendum

The proposed constitutional reform follows three referendums on independence, agreed as part of the 1998 Noumea Accord.

In all three – in 2018, 2020 and 2021 – the electorate chose to remain part of France.

But the last referendum, marked by a record low turnout of just 44 percent, was boycotted by the main pro-independence group, the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), which had failed to persuade Paris to postpone the vote due to the Covid pandemic.

FLNKS has since refused to acknowledge the results, and it maintains the Noumea Accord has not gone to term.

Multiple attempts have been made to get all pro-independence and pro-France local political parties around the same table, but with little success.

The presidents of four other overseas territories – Reunion Island, Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana – have made a joint call for the voting reform to be dropped.

The text still has to be approved by a joint session of both houses of parliament, held in Versailles, to become law.

President Emmanuel Macron has agreed to delay that session, but said a new agreement must be reached by June at latest.

Ongoing inequality

While more autonomy has been achieved since the Noumea Accord, deep socio-economic differences remain.

Young Kanaks remain “very marginalised” compared to those of European descent, Mathias Chauchat, a professor and advisor to the FLNKS, told French public radio.

Forty-six percent of Kanaks end their studies at junior high school level compared to 11 percent of the territory's Europeans. They see those arriving from mainland France as “progressively taking their jobs”, said Chauchat.

Young people have been at the forefront of this month's deadly rioting – picking up on protests in Noumea led by the hardline lobby group Coordination Unit for Actions on the Ground (CCAT).

The change to voting rights, unilaterally decided by lawmakers in Paris, led to “an explosion of violence among very young people, the overflowing of a movement that up until now was contained”, said Merle.

Economic factors have also played a role in the violent protests. New Caledonia is the world's third-largest nickel miner but a crisis in the sector has hit residents hard, with one in five living under the poverty threshold.

'Unique' colonial history

Concerns over being voted out of their territory's decision-making process come against a background of "extremely painful" colonisation, she added.

The archipelago of 140 islands, some 17,000 kilometres from Paris, was annexed by France in 1853 and used as a penal colony for political prisoners in the second half of the 19th century.

During the so-called “Grand Cantonnement” operations between 1897 and 1903, indigenous Kanaks were displaced and consigned to reservations to make way for settlers.

“New Caledonia has a unique colonial history, where the strategy of the state from 1853 was to deliberately introduce wave upon wave of French migrants to populate the territory,” Merle said.

“They tried to transform it into a 'little Austral France' as they called it in the 19th century."

Ongoing social inequalities continue to fuel that sense of injustice.

“There's a huge amount of anger. I was surprised by the rapidity with which it spread," Merle said in an interview referring to the rioting.

"It's down to a major political failure ... after 30 years of attempting to come out of a colonial situation in a positive way."