New Caledonia: Curfew, airport closed after riots in Noumea

World Tuesday 14/May/2024 15:16 PM
By: DW
New Caledonia: Curfew, airport closed after riots in Noumea

Noumea: New Caledonia's government on Tuesday appealed for "reason and calm" after overnight rioting and violent protests in the capital Noumea.

"No reason for discontent, frustration and anger could justify undermining or destroying what the country has been able to build for decades and mortgaging the future," it said in a statement on Tuesday.

The government of the French territory to the east of Australia in the Indo-Pacific mobilised security forces and issued a 12-hour overnight curfew for Tuesday night.

The international airport in Noumea was closed and all commercial flights canceled, its operator said.

The New Caledonia high commission also announced a ban on public gatherings and the sale of spirits, and said that schools and colleges were closed until further notice.

The head of the commission Louis Le Franc reported 36 arrests and "numerous injured" among security forces, but said there had been no serious civilian injuries in the "high intensity" disturbances the previous night.

He said a group of around 200 often armed youths seemed to be leading the violence targeting police and warned that officers would eventually be forced to return fire unless this ceased. 

What caused the violence?
Proposed changes to the voting system triggered the unrest. They would enable more migrants on the island — in many cases from France — to vote.

The disturbances began to pick up pace on Monday, a day ahead of a debate in France's National Assembly parliament on changes to the New Caledonian constitution.

The changes would enable more migrants in the territory to vote, which independence supporters fear will dilute the vote of the indigenous Kanak.

France wants to update a 1998 Noumea deal that helped end a decade of conflict by outlining a path to gradual autonomy and restricting voting rights for local elections to indigenous Kanak and to migrants who had been resident on the island before 1998.

More than a quarter of a century later, Paris plans to open voting rights to people who have been in the country for more than 10 years uninterrupted.

Of the island's roughly 270,000 inhabitants, around 40,000 are thought to be French nationals unable to vote in local elections, a situation the government in Paris has called "absurd."

"The unfreezing of the electoral roll for the sole local elections in New Caledonia is not just a political desire, it is a moral obligation for those who believe in democracy," French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said in the National Assembly when opening the debate on Monday.

In President Louis Mapou, elected in 2021, New Caledonia has its first pro-independence Kanak leader.

The 1998 deal with France charted a path towards greater sovereignty and eventual independence.

But three recent referendums — in 2018, 2020 and 2021 — ended with a vote in favor of remaining a French territory. The first two were close, with the winning side claiming roughly 57% and then 53%.

Kanak independence parties boycotted the 2021 vote, citing the COVID pandemic, and so that was a 96% landslide but with less than 50% turnout.

On a visit to the territory last year, French President Emmanuel Macron had said he wanted a revised constitutional status for New Caledonia to be implemented by early 2024.

New Zealand's Peters delays visit
New Zealand's Foreign Minister Winston Peters also called off a trip to the French territory in the Indo-Pacific, with a spokesman saying it would allow authorities there to focus on the unrest.

"In discussions with our French and New Caledonian hosts, we have decided to postpone this week's travel to Noumea to allow authorities to fully focus on the current situation," his spokesperson said in a statement.