New Caledonia's troubles

Dr James Kierstead
Insights Newsletter
24 May, 2024

White sand beaches. Palm trees waving in a gentle breeze. Seas of turquoise and ultramarine, cobalt and denim stretching out as far as the eye can see. 

Such is the view of New Caledonia that you get on travel websites. And it’s not an entirely misleading one. Tensions between the white population (the Caldoches) and the native Kanaks have long simmered under this calmest of surfaces, though.  

Last week they suddenly burst into view, with riots erupting across the main island of Grande Terre. Around 1,000 gendarmes have been sent from France to bolster the 1,700 already there. A major mission is underway to take back control of the road between the international airport and the capital, the mayor of which has described it as ‘under siege.’ Some 200 people have been arrested and at least six lie dead, including both Kanaks and police officers. 

The riots were sparked by a proposal in the National Assembly in Paris to grant voting rights to anyone who has lived in the territory (part of France, but with the special status as an overseas collectivité) for more than 10 years.  

Under the 1998 Nouméa Accord, only people who were residents of New Caledonia that year can vote. This was a key demand of the Kanak independence movement, since voting in independence referendums tends to split along ethnic lines, with Kanaks voting for it and Caldoches voting against it.  

Three independence referendums have been held since 1998, with the vote going against independence each time. But separatists are clearly dismayed at the thought of independence retreating further from their grasp.  

Dismay and further efforts at political mobilisation may be justified. Violence, however, is not. Since the National Assembly’s measure would change the constitution, it has a long road ahead of it, and may never become law. In the meantime, it is surely reasonable for the 40,000 or so migrants who have made New Caledonia their home since 1998 to seek local representation.  

The French government has been clear that order must be restored. When the political process gets going again, though, the French authorities would be well-advised to attend not only to stability, but also to fraternité between Kanak and Caldoche. If they do not, the independence movement will surely grow. And if French influence wanes in the Pacific, there is another, rising power over the horizon who would be more than happy to step in.  

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