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16 Jun 2024 23:22
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  •   Home > News > International

    Why an approved constitutional amendment in New Caledonia led to deadly violence in the French overseas territory

    At least six people are dead as a result of protests in New Caledonia, after Paris approved a constitutional amendment that some fear will dilute the voting power of the Indigenous Kanak.


    Deadly violence has erupted in New Caledonia, after the French Government approved a constitutional amendment to allow residents who have lived in the territory for at least 10 years to vote in provincial elections. 

    The amendment, which some local leaders fear will dilute the vote of the Indigenous Kanak, is the latest flashpoint in a decades-long tussle over France's role in the territory.

    At least six people have died following five nights of upheaval, which resulted in torched cars, looted shops, and road barricades, cutting off access to medicine and food.

    Where is New Caledonia?

    The group of more than 140 islands is an overseas French territory located in the warm waters of the south-west Pacific Ocean. 

    It lies about 1,500 kilometres east of Australia, with the islands of Vanuatu and Fiji as its closest neighbours.

    The territory has a population of almost 300,000 people, of whom the Indigenous Kanak make up about 40 per cent and those of European origin 24 per cent.

    [MAP]

    Why does it matter?

    The mineral-rich territory is at the centre of a regional power contest between China and Western allies, including France, Australia and the United States.

    New Caledonia is the world's third largest producer of nickel — a critical material for making stainless steel, as well as batteries in electronic vehicles (EVs). 

    It is one of five island territories in the Indo-Pacific held by France and is central to French President Emmanuel Macron's plan to deepen French influence.

    Without naming China, he has previously said France's expansion in the Pacific was to "preserve necessary balances in the region".

    But Lowy Institute's Pacific research fellow, Oliver Nobetau, said a heavy-handed response to the ongoing riots by French police could backfire.

    "France is trying to re-emerge as a Pacific partner and this will evidently not help that image," he said.

    The former Papua New Guinea government adviser on international security deals added that decolonisation in the Pacific was expected. 

    This also risks helping China, Australian National University Pacific analyst Graeme Smith said, as the country could weaponise the colonial legacy of Western nations in the Pacific.

    "It will play very well because China has been discovering some of the colonial history of the Pacific," he said.

    Beijing has pushed to deepen its security ties in the Pacific Islands, strategically located between the US and Asia, with mixed success.

    After striking a security pact with the Solomon Islands in 2022 that alarmed Washington, Beijing failed to reach a Pacific-wide trade and security deal.

    China shifted attention and financial support to a sub-group, the Melanesian Spearhead Group, formed in 1986 to back decolonisation for Melanesian countries still under colonial rule.

    Most notably, New Caledonia's the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) has been included as a member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group and the Spearhead Group was strident in its criticism of France's part in the crisis.

    "These events could have been avoided if the French government had listened and not proceeded to press forward with the Constitutional Bill aimed at unfreezing the electoral roll," MSG chairman and Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai said.

    He said France urgently needed to agree to a proposal by the FLNKS to a dialogue and mediation mission led by a mutually agreed mediator, to "discuss a way forward so that normalcy can be restored quickly and an enduring peace can prevail in New Caledonia".

    What is its history with France?

    After France's colonisation in the 19th century, New Caledonia officially became a French overseas territory in 1946.

    Starting in the 1970s, after a nickel boom that drew outsiders, tensions rose on the island, with various conflicts between Paris and Kanak independence movements.

    A 1998 Nouméa accord helped end the conflict by outlining a path to gradual autonomy and restricting voting to the Kanak and migrants living in New Caledonia before 1998.

    The accord allowed for three referendums to determine the future of the country. In all three, independence was rejected.

    Why have tensions exploded recently?

    Under the terms of the Nouméa Accord, voting in provincial elections was restricted to people who had resided in New Caledonia prior to 1998, and their children.

    The measure was aimed at giving greater representation to the Kanaks, who had become a minority population.

    Paris has come to view the arrangement as undemocratic and lawmakers approved a constitutional amendment to open up the electorate to include people who have lived in New Caledonia for at least 10 years.

    Mr Macron has said he will delay rubber-stamping it into law, and invite representatives of the territory's population to Paris for talks to reach a negotiated settlement.

    However, he said a new agreement must be reached by June, or he will sign it into law.

    Editor's note (21/05/2024): This story has been updated to clarify the constitutional amendment relates to residents who have lived in New Caledonia for at least 10 years. An earlier version referred only to 'recent arrivals' in the first paragraph, although the specific details of those affected were outlined further down the article. 

    ABC/wires

    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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