A man of whom only his arms and hands are visible holds a stone and carries a knife attached to his belt.

Riots and clashes have left at least four dead and dozens injured in New Caledonia.

Photo: Getty Images / AFP / Delphine Mayeur

French President Emmanuel Macron announced on Wednesday in Paris the establishment of a state of emergency in New Caledonia. In this French territory at the antipodes of mainland France, clashes, started fires and looting raged for three consecutive nights, between Monday evening and Thursday morning.

Four people lost their lives in the clashes, including a 22-year-old police officer. On Tuesday, local authorities imposed a curfew in the capital, Nouméa. And on Wednesday, from the mainland, this announcement of the state of emergency and the dispatch of some 2,000 members of the police, dispatched by Paris.

What is happening in New Caledonia? Why this revolt?

A French colony

New Caledonia is an archipelago which revolves around a large main island, stretched over 400 km (or twice the island of Anticosti, in Quebec), equidistant between Australia and New Zealand. A “confetti” from the former French empire. Its 270,000 inhabitants are still citizens of France.

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New Caledonia was colonized by Paris from 1853. Reforms and a so-called decolonization process have been undertaken for a quarter of a century.

There was a text, the “Nouméa agreement”, signed in 1998 by the socialist prime minister at the time, Lionel Jospin. It provided for a devolution of powers, the definition of specific citizenship and the possibility of holding self-determination referendums.

(Something which, for example, would be unthinkable with Corsica. But for this land at the end of the world, France was ready to go further, to consider decolonization which could go as far as separation.)

These referendums took place between 2018 and 2021. Voters, three times, said “no” to independence. Even if, in the 2020 referendum, it came quite close, with 47% “yes” and 53% “no”.

Two conceptions of identity

Today we are witnessing a new clash, the most dangerous in a long time, between two conceptions of the future of the territory and the identity of this people.

On the one hand, there are the indigenous people, called Kanaks, of Polynesian-Melanesian origin. They were there when the French arrived in the mid-19th century. Still economically disadvantaged, the majority of them are today independentists.

On the other side, there are the descendants of the European settlers, who are called the Caldoches, sometimes mixed, sometimes not, most often loyalists and attached to Paris, to whom Europeans of more recent origin, who left settle there, like other immigrants.

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This political divide is not always cut with a knife; there are gray areas and exceptions. The vote is not strictly divided according to ethnic categories.

For example, today there are 41% Kanaks in New Caledonia, but the “yes” to independence still rose to 47%, in the referendum of October 4, 2020.

A makeshift dam made up of planks and objects in a district of Nouméa.  Residents are seen sitting nearby.

Residents erected a roadblock to protect their neighborhood in Nouméa, New Caledonia, shaken by riots.

Photo: Getty Images / AFP / Theo Rouby

Giving immigrants the right to vote

Specifically, what triggered the current crisis? It is a legislative and constitutional revision in Paris, which arouses the indignation of the Kanak separatists.

Opposed to this revision, the pro-independence political parties (mainly the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front, or FLNKS) do not support the violent demonstrations. But there is clearly, in the streets of Nouméa, a fairly numerous radical fringe which does not listen to the political leadership.

This reform, led by Emmanuel Macron’s government, was voted on by the National Assembly on Wednesday. It must extend New Caledonian “local citizenship” – and the right to vote – to at least 25,000 additional people who have lived there for more than ten years. Proportionally, this is considerable: it represents 15 to 20% of the electorate.

Why that? Because the Nouméa agreement had a clause – which one may find bizarre and which, in retrospect, turns out to be explosive – which “froze” and limited the right to vote to the populations present on the territory in 1998 and to their children, basically.

Under this 1998 text (the Nouméa agreement), all those who subsequently settled in the territory (i.e. over the last 25 years) have never had – and should never have obtained in the future – local citizenship and the right to vote. Even for French citizens who have decided to move from Paris to Nouméa!

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The fear of being buried

Therefore, the revision underway in Paris – which must still be constitutionally sanctioned by the “Congress” (Assembly and Senate exceptionally meeting in Versailles) – aims specifically to undo this clause.

It stipulates an expansion of the electoral body of New Caledonia, for local elections, to all citizens residing there for at least ten years.

The separatists are fighting this enlargement because they fear a loss of electoral weight for the Kanaks and a gradual erosion of the indigenous population. For them, immigration and the right to vote given to immigrants (who come from Pacific islands like Tahiti, Wallis and Futuna, but also from Europe and France) seem politically dangerous, even deadly. They are afraid of being buried and becoming an ultra-minority.

“The powder fire”

In Paris, all this inspires great concern, which explains the “heavy hand” of the Macron government: the state of emergency and the dispatch of special repressive forces. Newspaper headline The world from Wednesday morning: New Caledonia : the specter of civil war.

A real danger? There has been violence in the history of New Caledonia. But for 25 years, we had succeeded quite well in “politicizing” this conflict, in the best sense of the word: by containing the debate within a political, institutional, referendum framework.

But today, we hear Louis Le Franc, High Commissioner of the Republic in New Caledonia (a sort of prefect who represents Paris in Nouméa), being frankly alarmist. He told BFM-TV: The situation is insurrectional. We are heading straight into a civil war. This is also what the tenors of the left said in the National Assembly, to justify their refusal to vote for this law extending the right to vote to immigrants in New Caledonia. With a game of reversed roles, where it is the right which allies with the Macron government to expand the right to vote, which the left fights, with anti-colonialist arguments. And warnings like: You are playing a dangerous game. You will set fire to the powder.

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