Four dead in a riot in the French archipelago of New Caledonia

France still pays a heavy price for its colonial past.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
14 May 2024 Tuesday 22:22
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Four dead in a riot in the French archipelago of New Caledonia

France still pays a heavy price for its colonial past. This is demonstrated by the revolt that has shaken the archipelago of New Caledonia since last Monday, 17,000 kilometers from Paris, in Oceania. The serious disturbances, described as an “insurrectional situation” by the territory's own high commissioner, Louis Le Franc, have already caused at least four deaths, one of them a gendarme, and hundreds of injuries.

At the request of President Emmanuel Macron, the Government this Wednesday decreed a state of emergency in this small France of the antipodes, which was incorporated into the then empire, in 1853, by Napoleon III. To try to restore order, 500 additional police and gendarmes were sent by air, adding to the 1,800 already present on those remote islands in the South Pacific, a two-hour flight from the Australian coast.

The revolt, carried out mainly by young Kanaks – the indigenous population – in the capital, Nouméa, and its surroundings, has spread panic because firearms have been used and there have been property burnings and looting, with scenes of chaos. The fear is that the disorders will degenerate into a true civil war between the radical Kanaks and the white inhabitants originally from metropolitan France. The drama was already on the verge of occurring in the 80s of the last century, but it could be avoided with a political agreement in extremis between the two communities.

At the origin of the current protests is a constitutional amendment project to end the advantage that is given today to the Kanaks in the electoral roll, since it excludes those arriving from outside who have not resided on the islands since before 1998.

About 270,000 people live in New Caledonia, with an area just over half of Catalonia. It is not a full-fledged French department like the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, French Guiana in South America, or Mayotte in the Indian Ocean. New Caledonia is an overseas entity under French sovereignty, but is part, according to the UN, of the territories in the process of decolonization and with the right to self-determination. France admits that it can access full independence, although it does not encourage it to do so.

As a result of the agreements reached at the end of the last century, there were three consecutive referendums, between 2018 and 2021, in which the no to independence won. This unusual sequence of consultations did not solve the problem. The first referendum gave 56.7% in favor of remaining in France. In the second, supporters of the status quo obtained 53% of the vote. In the third consultation, the yes to France shot up to 96%, but it was a misleading unanimity because the Kanak independence leaders called for a boycott due to disagreements over how the vote had been organized.

The independentists would like to form a fully sovereign State, which they would call Kanaky. The majority of inhabitants of European origin, the Caldoches, are opposed. One of their arguments is that such a small independent country in that area of ​​the planet would be very vulnerable to the expansionism of China, the emerging power in the Pacific, which already has a lot of presence and influence in other microstates in the region.

Unless it becomes, due to its instability and violence, an unbearable burden, France would like to retain control of New Caledonia. Paris, which still feels like a global power on the geopolitical board, has a relevant projection in the Pacific, especially in French Polynesia, another autonomous territory that is not a department, the small archipelago of Wallis and Futuna, and the island of Clipperton ( against Mexico). The possessions in Oceania contribute greatly to making France, with more than 11 million square kilometers of exclusive economic zones (EEZ), the second country in the world, after the United States, with this heritage in the seas, which has a very notable economic potential for the future.

To understand the current revolt, we must take into account the serious crisis of nickel, the main natural resource of New Caledonia, which holds a quarter of the world's reserves of this metal. The price of nickel plummeted 45% last year, despite strong demand for the production of car batteries. The drop is explained by the spectacular increase in production in Indonesian fields. The companies that operate the nickel mines in New Caledonia are fighting for survival that is not guaranteed in the current situation. Furthermore, the exploitation of this resource is very controversial due to the strong environmental impact it causes.

The insurrection in New Caledonia further complicates things for Macron ahead of the European elections on June 9. The extreme right, which is a favorite, has the opportunity to strike a chord with patriotism and accuse the president of being too weak, both in internal public order and in the cohesion of vast overseas France.