France declares state of emergency in New Caledonia

After three nights of rioting in Noumea, with violent clashes between police and protestors, French President Emmanuel Macron has declared a state of emergency in New Caledonia, taking effect from Thursday morning.

The state of emergency gives extensive powers to the French State, including authority to ban public meetings and “demonstrations, processions, parades and gatherings of people on public roads”; block websites advocating terrorist acts; make house arrests and conduct “administrative searches.”

Overnight, the French government deployed military forces to control ports and La Tontouta (the international airport on the outskirts of Noumea), alongside the hundreds of gendarmes, CRS riot police and specialist police units already in New Caledonia.

Talking tough, French Overseas Minister Gérald Darmanin told parliament in Paris that “the French Republic will not tremble” in the face of violence, describing the CCAT network of independence activists as “a mafia group which clearly wants to introduce violence.”

Darmanin has already begun using new powers under the State of Emergency, announcing on Thursday morning that: “I have just signed the first five orders for house arrest of radical and violent leaders. On my instruction, administrative searches will be carried out by the police immediately.”

French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal has also announced a ban on TikTok, to limit the sharing of images and information on social media.

After the stick, the carrot. President Macron has invited New Caledonian political leaders to Paris later this month, for face-to-face talks on the crisis. Despite this, trust between the main independence coalition in New Caledonia – the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) – the President and Minister Darmanin is badly damaged. As the Overseas Minister addressed the French parliament earlier this year, Dominique Fochi of the FLNKS Political Bureau said: “The deceitful and mendacious attitude of Minister Gérald Darmanin disqualifies him from serving as interlocutor with the FLNKS today.”

As New Caledonian politicians tried to find common ground on a new political statute, the FLNKS called for “the establishment of a mediation mission led by a high-level dignitary, in order to guarantee the impartiality of the French State and to open a new phase of discussion.”

On 15 May, the FLNKS Political Bureau of issued a statement calling for calm, removal of roadblocks and end to riots in Noumea. Leaders of the FLNKS and other independence forces must decide on whether the partnership built under the Noumea Accord can be revived.

Growing conflict

In a press conference on Tuesday, French High Commissioner Louis Le Franc described protestors as “rioters” engaged in “a form of civil war”, noting that “the perpetrators of the violence are overwhelmingly young men aged between 15 and 25.” Le Franc also identified anti-independence “armed militias”, that are clashing with Kanak protestors.

Around Noumea and nearby areas like Mont Dore, Paita and Dumbea, some residents have organised into so-called “self-defence groups”, to protect houses and businesses against rioters. Despite the ban on firearms and other weapons, some of these groups are armed with hunting rifles. High Commissioner Le Franc noted: “There are armed militias that form to protect themselves. But the militias must also hear the call for calm.”

At time of writing, Le Franc has confirmed four deaths, including the shooting of a French gendarme at La Coulée (near Mont Dore), and the death of a Kanak protestor, shot by “someone who certainly wanted to defend himself”, according to High Commissioner.

As 1,800 gendarmes, paramilitary policy and CRS riot squads are strengthened by 500 incoming reinforcements, Noumea faces a massive economic and cultural crisis, after nights of rioting and the arson of dozens of buildings.

Despite the 6pm to 6am curfew on Tuesday and Wednesday nights – now extended – there have been ongoing clashes, injuries and more than 200 arrests. The French authorities initially banned all gatherings and demonstrations in greater Noumea, the sale of alcohol and the carrying of weapons anywhere in New Caledonia. These bans have failed, and the looting and burning of shops, cars, factories and public institutions – including police stations – has escalated into exchanges of gunfire between police and armed rioters.

Echoes of the 1980s

This is only the second time that a state of emergency has been declared in the French Pacific dependency – it was first used in December 1984, as the FLNKS launched a boycott of elections. This was the start of four years of armed conflict known as Les évènements (the troubles) between 1984-88. From 1986, French military forces were deployed across the country – a crisis that culminated in the 1988 Ouvea massacre.

This week’s decision by the French Council of Ministers to act came after leading anti-independence politicians wrote to President Macron, calling for the state of emergency.

Sonia Backès, leader of the anti-independence party Les Loyalistes and President of the Southern Province wrote to President Macron on Wednesday, declaring “we are in a state of civil war.” She called on the French State to declare the state of emergency and deploy the army alongside gendarmes and CRS riot police.

This call was echoed in letters to President Macron from other anti-independence politicians who represent New Caledonia in the French parliament, National assembly deputy Nicolas Metzdorf and Senator Georges Naturel.

The government of New Caledonia, the FLNKS, community leaders have all called for calm and an end to conflict, but also have called on the French government to delay or withdraw the legislation on electoral reform that has triggered this week’s events. On Monday, a resolution of the Congress of New Caledonia called for the withdrawal of the French government’s electoral reforms. The 28-24 vote was backed by independence members and the Wallisian party Eveil océanien, but opposed by three Loyalist groups.

Regional reaction

Pacific island leaders and regional organisations have also released statements calling for calm, dialogue and de-escalation of the conflict.

Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, Prime Minister of Cook Islands Mark Brown, said “recent events in New Caledonia are deeply concerning to the Pacific family.”

“I acknowledge that the collegial dialogue that once existed between the parties to the Noumea Accord has not been effective in recent years, particularly since the 2021 New Caledonia referendum on independence,” Brown said. “I call on all parties to return to our family table, to reconcile our differences, recall and build on the sentiments of 1988 and 1998 during the signings of the Matignon and Noumea Accords that led to over 30 years of relative peace.

“The Pacific Islands Forum stands ready to facilitate and provide a supported and neutral space for all parties to come together in the spirit of the Pacific Way, to find an agreed way forward that safeguards the interests of the people of New Caledonia.”

As the crisis erupted NZ Foreign Minister Winston Peters postponed a scheduled trip to New Caledonia this week. “Gravely concerned” about the conflict and calling for dialogue, Peters said “the escalating situation and violent protests in Nouméa are of serious concern across the Pacific Islands region.”

“The immediate priority must be for all sides to take steps to de-escalate the situation, so that there can be dialogue and calm,” Peters said. “No matter your views on the political arrangements in New Caledonia, everyone should agree that violence is harmful to every community there.”

Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai, current chair of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, reaffirmed MSG support of the FLNKS position opposing the French government’s constitutional bill aimed at unfreezing New Caledonia’s electoral roll.

“These events could have been avoided if the French government had listened and not proceeded to bulldoze the Constitutional Bill aimed at unfreezing the electoral roll,” Salwai said. “There is an urgent need now for France to agree to the proposal by the FLNKS to establish a dialogue and mediation mission, to be led by a mutually agreed high personality, to discuss a way forward so that normalcy can be restored quickly and an enduring peace can prevail.”

The MSG Chair expressed support for the FLNKS’ call for calm, and “pointed out that the indiscriminate destruction of property will affect New Caledonia’s economy and a very big way and that will have a debilitating cascading effect on the welfare and lives of all New Caledonians.”

Veteran Solomon Islands diplomat Collin Beck, a former Ambassador at the United Nations, and now Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs tweeted that “the New Caledonia question remains on the UN agenda.” In December 1986, with support from Forum countries, New Caledonia was re-listed as a non-self-governing territory by the UN General Assembly, under the mandate of the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation.