Violent clashes in Noumea as French National Assembly debates voting rights

Riot damage in Noumea

As the French parliament in Paris considers legislation to reform voting rights in New Caledonia, there has been a night of rioting and arson in Noumea.

On Monday, a series of peaceful protest rallies highlighted calls from the FLNKS independence movement for the withdrawal of the legislation, which will add more than 25,000 new voters to electoral rolls for New Caledonia’s three provincial assemblies and national Congress.

During the day, independence activists held peaceful rallies in Koohne and Noumea, presenting petitions to the French authorities. Protest roadblocks were established in some rural areas, without incident. However as night fell, clashes occurred across greater Noumea, affecting suburbs like Magenta, Ducos, Kamere and Valee du Tir and peri-urban centres like Mont Dore and Dumbea.

Young protesters gathered at roundabouts in many parts of the New Caledonian capital, waving the flag of Kanaky. There were clashes with French gendarmes, who fired teargas and flash balls to disperse the mainly youthful crowd, as protesters responded with stones, burning tyres and attacks on passing vehicles.

At Montravel, the major bottling plant run by Société Le Froid was burnt, while luxury vehicles were torched at Porche, Audi and Renault car yards in Magenta. At the community of Saint Louis – a traditional hot spot on the outskirts of the capital – Kanak youth threw Molotov cocktails and blocked vehicles travelling to Mont Dore. A police station in Magenta was set on fire. As the night progressed, there were other opportunistic attacks on shops, supermarkets and liquor outlets, which were looted or set on fire.

After the night of violence in Noumea, French High Commissioner Louis Le Franc announced a 6pm to 6am curfew for the night of Tuesday 14 May, which may be extended in coming days. The French authorities have banned all gatherings and demonstrations in Noumea, halted the sale of alcohol and banned the carrying of weapons in the whole territory.

The French High Commission reported 36 arrests and injuries to more than 20 police officers.

Reports in the French media say the French government will deploy more specialised police units to New Caledonia in coming days. These include four squadrons of mobile gendarmes, two sections of CRS 8 (riot police used against urban violence) and specialists from the Recherche, Assistance, Intervention, Dissuasion (RAID) group, an elite tactical unit of the French National Police used in counter-terrorism and protection of VIPs and embassies.

Videos on social media show that there were still scattered protests and clashes with police on Tuesday morning, and further tensions are likely in coming weeks.

The rioting in New Caledonia starkly highlights the polarisation between supporters and opponents of independence in the French Pacific dependency. For weeks, members of some independence parties and trade unions have coordinated largely peaceful protest rallies through the Cellule de coordination des actions de terrain (CCAT). On 13 April, CCAT organised a mass rally of nearly 30,000 people, calling for withdrawal of the electoral reforms – a protest shadowed by a large counter-demonstration organised by Loyalist anti-independence parties.

While there have been many social conflicts in New Caledonia in recent decades, the current tensions show significant differences to the historic armed clashes of 1984-88, known as les évènements. In the 1980s, much of the violent conflict took place in rural areas rather than Noumea, known as Ville Blanche (white city) by Kanak. Today, in contrast, the protests are focussed on the national capital and the Southern Province, dominated by anti-independence politicians. Last night’s clashes also follow recent industrial disputes around the crucial nickel industry, with further clashes likely in coming weeks.

Overnight, the President of New Caledonia’s Southern Province Sonia Backès, leader of the anti-independence Loyalist bloc, took to Facebook to condemn independence leaders, arguing that “some in the independence movement have transformed their political fight into urban guerrilla warfare, using kids who are setting fire to greater Nouméa.”

In March, the French Parliament voted to delay provincial elections scheduled this month, to an undetermined date before 15 December. The French government is using the time to gain parliamentary approval for changes to the electoral laws, which are entrenched in the French Constitution. If implemented, the residency requirement to qualify for New Caledonian citizenship will be reduced to 10 years, adding 14.5% more voters to the special electoral list for the local political institutions.

After a parliamentary debate on Monday night, the French National Assembly will meet again at 3pm Tuesday (1am Wednesday in Suva) to vote on the legislation. The proposed law, which already passed the French Senate on 2 April, has already been considered by the National Assembly’s legal commission on 7 May, with government members rejecting amendments proposed by opposition parties.

After the passage of the legislation tonight, it must then go to a joint sitting of both houses of parliament, known as the congress of Versailles, requiring a 3/5 majority vote of all French parliamentarians. French President Emmanuel Macron had planned to move quickly towards this joint sitting, but has now proposed delaying the session until late June (on 6-9 June, Macron’s Renaissance party will contest elections for the European Parliament, and the French government is also seeking good news in the lead up to the Olympics, which France will host in August).

The clashes in Noumea, however, highlight the depth of anger amongst indigenous Kanak and other supporters of independence, who have called for the withdrawal or delay of the legislation.

These calls for a shift in policy have been taken up by key opposition parties in Paris. This morning, four leaders of La France Insoumise, led by Jean-Luc Melenchon, wrote an op ed in the newspaper Le Monde, criticising the French government for further “de-railing” stalled talks on a new political statute for New Caledonia. They called for a return to negotiations of a comprehensive political settlement, noting that “one of the crucial subjects of the debate concerns precisely the composition of the electoral body. The government’s unilateral decision to suddenly impose a significant change in the electorate (+14%) has once again derailed the dialogue process.”

President Macron has also called on New Caledonian political leaders to travel to Paris later this month, to restart the stalled negotiations over a new political statute. Independence leaders will meet later this week to discuss his proposal and announce their response, but sources in Noumea suggest that trust in the French President and his Overseas Minister Gérald Darmanin is at rock bottom.

The FLNKS has called for a high-level delegation of independent mediators to travel to Noumea to meet with all parties. They are also planning delegations to meet with the Pacific Islands Forum and Melanesian Spearhead Group to raise long-standing concerns about the lack of impartiality from the French government, as it seeks to develop a new statute to replace the 1998 Noumea Accord (the framework agreement that has governed New Caledonian politics for the last 25 years).

In Paris, Le Monde reports that three former French Prime Ministers – Manuel Valls, Edouard Philippe and Jean-Marc Ayrault – have said that current Prime Minister Gabriel Attal should take control of the issue, a sign of concern about Darmanin’s role in the crisis. They endorsed calls for new interlocuters to travel to New Caledonia, “where the dual political and economic crisis is causing growing concern.”

As business owners clean up the wreckage of a troubled night in Noumea, and police patrol the streets of the capital, there is a long way to go before France will truly address its international law obligations on decolonisation.

Further analysis of the current crisis in New Caledonia will be reported in the next edition of Islands Business magazine.