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  • Kyleigh Krames

New Caledonia conflict intensifies as Australia and New Zealand evacuate citizens

New Caledonia, a French territory located between Australia and Fiji, has faced drastic destruction and backlash this past May due to French referendums and political proposals that have challenged the island’s demographic dichotomy and identity. 


New Caledonia’s future has been unpredictable for several years now. The archipelago traditionally had limited autonomy within the French system, sending only two representatives to the French National Assembly and one to the Senate. French President Emmanuel Macron is the head of state of the islands, and the government “retains authority over defense, internal security, and various other matters” in the region, according to Brittanica. 


Three referendums per the 1998 Nouméa Accord regarding the region’s independence from France exhibit a narrow gap in votes between those who wish to remain a part of France, the initial majority, and those who are part of the pro-independence Kanak movement. The 1998 Nouméa Accord is one of the agreements that ended years of near-Civil War in the 1980s. Blocking roads and setting fire to town buildings were signs of discontent from the Kanak movement then, and the same sort of protest is being seen now.


 The last referendum held about the state of New Caledonia’s independence, as demanded by the Accord, was initiated in 2021. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastation on the indigenous Kanak, there was a formal request put forward by the community to postpone the vote. When France refused to move the referendum, it was boycotted by pro-independence protesters. Traditional Kanak mourning customs during that period adversely impacted pro-independence campaigning opportunities, which multiplied the number of boycotters who thought the vote unfair. 


Though the three referendums came to a close in December 2021, as a region with a declining European settler population and a rising indigenous population — roughly 42% Kanak “at present” — independence could be likely possibility in the near future; according to experts of New Caledonia politics Simon Batterbury and Matthias Kowasch. However, the newest French proposal to add 24,000 new voters to the electoral roll is set to contest that prediction, sparking the recent bout of violence. 


The reform has already passed in France’s National Assembly and Senate. It moves to erase the previous arrangement, which had limited voter eligibility to those who had lived in New Caledonia before 1998 and their subsequent children. 


The measure only needs one more sitting in June to be passed into law and is seen by pro-independence camps as another attempt by France to undermine Indigenous voices and agendas. This measure would add thousands of French persons who recently settled in New Caledonia to the electoral roll, thus diminishing the chance of New Caledonia becoming independent — which it was likely to do if a referendum was held in a few years with the traditional voter eligibility. 


The French government argued that a change to the voting rules was necessary for elections to be democratic. Pro-France loyalist parties were “happy” that this measure would swell the future vote in favor of remaining with France, according to ABC News Australia. However, Kanak leaders felt it was a dilution of the native people’s political influence and another example that “they were not being respected or listened to.” Some pro-independence activists say the situation means their substantial population is being concentrated into a “minority in our own home” and fear that the voter reform “means the elimination of the Kanak people,” according to the BBC. 


The tensions that resulted from the controversial voter reform, in addition to the 2021 referendum that was seen as illegitimate by pro-independence camps, have catalyzed an eruption of violent protest.


Clashes between demonstrators and police, burnt-out vehicles, torchings of government buildings, and raidings and burnings of businesses have claimed six lives and wounded hundreds these past weeks — compelling France to declare a state of emergency. Six hundred French officers, including 100 from Paris’s elite counterterrorism forces, were sent on May 14 to reinforce the 1,050 security police the archipelago has bore in France’s attempt to restore order. French General Nicolas Matthéos asked local protestors to halt their “hostilities with the police and gendarmes” and declared the protestors’ resistance was futile. 


In light of all flights to and from New Caledonia ceasing due to the unrest, neighbors New Zealand and Australia have arranged for the extraction of their nationals from the territory. Three hundred Australian tourists and foreign residents registered for assistance with extraction from the French Pacific territory, and 50 New Zealanders are being flown home on a series of scheduled military flights. Passenger lists are being organized by both countries in accordance with those in the most dire need of assistance as food shortages and fires continue to spread. 


The airport in New Caledonia remains closed for commercial flights due to roadblocks, burnt-out cars, and other debris on the main road from the airport to the capital. Protestors have been using burnt wreckage to block this key road, orchestrating the highway as their largest demonstration against the French military, which has already neutralized 76 roadblocks along the passage despite protestors continuing to rebuild obstacles.


Those engrossed in the conflict fear that Macron’s warning that the military deployed may need to remain in the region “for some time” foreshadows only worsening tensions between the native Kanak community and the French. Many Kanak already view the voter reform and France’s response as a continuation of settler colonialism. If the looting and arson continue, it will only mean the deployment of more French officers who have already come to the archipelago by the thousands – deepening the divide between natives and settlers. 


The pro-independence movement mostly consists of young Kanak who are feeling alienated due to a visible wealth disparity in the territory. Kanak leaders say they continually suffer inordinate “discrimination and chronic underinvestment” under the French government’s thumb. Forty-six percent of Kanak’s highest education level is a junior high school certificate, which is 35% more compared to the territory’s Europeans. 


Some experts say the political unrest is only a symptom of a larger issue about the lack of inclusivity and unity in New Caledonia’s society and economy. France’s influence in the matter, as head of the territory but allegedly safeguarding only a quarter of the population’s interest, is thus questioned and resisted. New Caledonians want to pave the way for more discussions about a way forward that suits the entirety of the archipelago while not dictated by the French parliament. 

As New Zealand and Australia continue to evacuate their nationals and monitor the crisis of their near neighbor, the legitimacy of France’s claim to the archipelago will come under further scrutiny — the fruition of years worth of building relations in the Pacific is in jeopardy before much advancement has even been made. 


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