Confrontations continue over planned voting rules change in New Caledonia

Violent confrontations erupted in New Caledonia last week in response to French lawmakers’ plans to change voting rules, jeopardizing the rights of the Kanak population

May 20, 2024 by Peoples Dispatch
Bloc in support of New Caledonia independence during May 1 rallies. Source: Baku Initiative Group

Six people were killed last week in New Caledonia following widespread unrest triggered by changes to voting rules approved by French lawmakers. The changes would allow individuals who moved to the island after 1998 to vote in provincial elections.

The unrest has primarily involved Caledonian youth from working-class and poor communities, who have erected barricades, blocked roads, and clashed with police in protest against the reform. In response, the French government has deployed over 1,000 additional armed forces to the island, which is approximately 17,000 kilometers from mainland France.

Local pro-independence groups, including the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) and French left-wing factions argue that the new voting rules are against the spirit of the Nouméa Accord, an agreement adopted in 1998 to support New Caledonia’s path towards self-determination. They emphasize that the rights of the indigenous Kanak population, which constitutes a bit more than 40% of the island’s residents, are at risk.

The Kanak people continue to live in significantly worse conditions than inhabitants of New Caledonia who originate from Europe. Poverty rates are significantly higher in Kanak communities, as are unemployment and imprisonment rates, despite French policy makers claiming that inequities have been addressed in the past 30 years.

Read more: Progressive sections denounce outcome of New Caledonia referendum

Members of La France Insoumise have criticized the French government’s approach, urging for a halt to the reforms and a renewed dialogue with New Caledonian political groups. “[President] Macron and [Interior Minister] Darmanin are creating the conditions for a political crisis that could have incalculable consequences,” said Bastien Lachaud of La France Insoumise in the National Assembly. “It could set us back 35 years, calling into question decades of civil peace. It is our duty to preserve peace, resume dialogue, and allow the Caledonian people to determine their own destiny.”

In light of the violence, political parties and movements in New Caledonia have called for de-escalation and renewed dialogue with France. Yet, they continue to criticize France’s handling of New Caledonia’s path to self-determination, particularly regarding the 2021 independence referendum held during the COVID-19 pandemic. The referendum saw a 96% vote in favor of remaining a French territory, but it was boycotted by pro-independence groups and remains contested.

Additionally, France and New Caledonia are at an impasse over the 2023 nickel pact. Despite holding significant nickel reserves, New Caledonia’s industry has suffered in recent years. France has offered financial support, but made the payment contingent on a comprehensive restructuring of the sector, including cuts and a shift towards European rather than Asian, namely Chinese, partners – conditions which New Caledonia was not ready to accept.