Macron Arrives in New Caledonia Amid Unrest: Indigenous Kanaks Seek Their Own State

"I will be very clear, the French security forces will remain as long as necessary," said the French president in New Caledonia, where five people died last week in riots, including two police officers

by Sededin Dedovic
Macron Arrives in New Caledonia Amid Unrest: Indigenous Kanaks Seek Their Own State
© Alexey Furman / Getty Images

French President Emmanuel Macron today called on demonstrators in New Caledonia to remove barricades and emphasized that increased police forces, which are trying to deal with the unrest that has claimed six lives on the French Pacific archipelago, "will stay as long as necessary," reports the Associated Press (AP).

Macron, who arrived today in Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia, stated that if needed, the reinforced police forces will remain on the archipelago even while French security services focus on safety before and during the Paris Olympics.

Indigenous Kanak leaders, who advocate for independence and had rejected Macron's offer for talks via video a week ago, met with him today along with rival leaders who want New Caledonia, which became French in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III, to remain part of France.

Macron opened the meeting by calling for a minute of silence for the six people killed in the shooting during the violence, including two gendarmes, and read out their names. He then urged local leaders to use their influence to help restore order.

He added that the state of emergency, which Paris imposed last week to strengthen police powers, could only be lifted if local leaders called for the removal of barricades. "I will be very clear here. The forces will stay as long as necessary.

Even during the Olympic and Paralympic Games," said Macron. Alongside Macron, the French Interior and Defense Ministers also arrived in New Caledonia. Unrest in New Caledonia broke out on May 13 while the French parliament in Paris was debating amendments to the Constitution to make changes to New Caledonia's voter rolls and adopt a bill that will, among other changes, allow citizens who have lived in New Caledonia for at least 10 years to vote in provincial elections.

Unrest in New Caledonia© DW News / YOutube channel

Opponents fear that this measure will benefit pro-French politicians in New Caledonia and further marginalize the Kanaks. The unrest in New Caledonia is the most intense since the 1980s when France was last forced to impose a state of emergency on the archipelago, reports AP.

In the unrest in French New Caledonia over the electoral law reform, five people were killed last week, and hundreds of houses were destroyed or damaged. At least 300 people were injured, and local media published photos and videos of looted supermarkets and gas stations.

There were around 5,000 demonstrators on the streets. A local politician described the situation as a civil war in a letter to French President Emmanuel Macron. The French government has announced a temporary block on the video application TikTok to hinder communication among the demonstrators.

Hundreds of police officers have been redeployed to the capital Nouméa to support local forces.

Unrest in New Caledonia© DW News / Youtube channel

New Caledonia is located 1,500 kilometers east of Australia.

It was a French colony from 1853 to 1946 and is now an overseas territory with special status. The residents of New Caledonia are French citizens, but the archipelago is not part of the European Union. The trigger for the protests was a constitutional reform granting voting rights to recently settled residents in New Caledonia, thereby increasing their political influence.

According to current regulations, only those New Caledonia residents who were already on the voter list in 1998 and their children can vote in elections on the archipelago. On the other hand, under the new regulation, anyone who has lived there for 10 years can now vote.

New Caledonia has 270,000 residents, and the reform grants voting rights to 50,000 of them. The French parliament approved the bill by a large majority. Supporters of New Caledonia's independence from France fear that the reform will weaken the influence of the indigenous population.

The Kanak ethnic group, made up of the indigenous people of New Caledonia, has long hoped for their own state. Kanaks make up about 40 percent of the population. The scale of the protests surprised French politicians, as the situation in New Caledonia was considered pacified.

The last major unrest occurred in the 1980s. In 1984, the left-wing "Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front" (FLNKS) was founded, leading to years of unrest and political assassinations. The peak was in April 1988 when separatists kidnapped and took 27 police officers and a judge hostage.

The consequence of the then independence uprising was the Matignon Agreement, which gave New Caledonia greater autonomy. The Nouméa Agreement of 1998 transferred further powers to New Caledonia. As stipulated by the agreement, referendums on independence were held in 2018, 2020, and 2021, with the population overwhelmingly deciding each time to remain part of France.

In the last referendum, 96 percent of the archipelago's residents voted against independence. However, voter turnout was relatively low at 44 percent, as FLNKS politicians called for a boycott of the vote.