Why is New Caledonia on fire? According to local women, the deadly riots are about more than voting rights

May 16, 2024
"Vote Yes" graffiti on a sign
Pro-independence leaders dispute the outcome of the 2021 independence referendum which, they argue, was forced on the territory by French authorities too soon after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Peter McCallum

New Caledonia’s capital city, Noumea, has endured widespread violent rioting over the past 48 hours. This crisis intensified rapidly, taking local authorities by surprise.

Peaceful protests had been occurring across the country in the preceding weeks as the French National Assembly in Paris deliberated on a constitutional amendment that would increase the territory’s electoral roll. As the date for the vote grew closer, however, protests became more obstructive and by Monday night had spiralled into uncontrolled violence.

Since then, countless public buildings, business locations and private dwellings have been subjected to arson. Blockades erected by protesters prevent movement around greater Noumea. Four people have died. Security reinforcements have been deployed, the city is under nightly curfew, and a state of emergency has been declared. Citizens in many areas of Noumea are now also establishing their own neighbourhood protection militias.

To understand how this situation has spiralled so quickly, it’s important to consider the complex currents of political and socioeconomic alienation at play.

The political dispute

At one level, the crisis is political, reflecting contention over a constitutional vote taken in Paris that will expand citizens’ voting rights. The change adds roughly 25,000 voters to the electoral role in New Caledonia by extending voting rights to French people who’ve lived on the island for ten years. This reform makes clear the political power that France continues to exercise over the territory.

The death toll has now increased to four.

The current changes have proven divisive because they undo provisions in the 1998 Noumea Accord, particularly the restriction of voting rights. The accord was designed to “rebalance” political inequalities so the interests of Indigenous Kanaks and the descendants of French settlers would be equally recognised. This helped to consolidate peace between these groups after a long period of conflict in the 1980s, known locally as “the evenements”.

A loyalist group of elected representatives in New Caledonia’s parliament reject the contemporary significance of “rebalancing” (in French “rééquilibrage”) with regard to the electoral status of Kanak people. They argue after three referendums on the question of New Caledonian independence, held between 2018 and 2021, all of which produced a majority no vote, the time for electoral reform is well overdue. This position is made clear by Nicolas Metzdorf. A key loyalist, he defined the constitutional amendment, which was passed by the National Assembly in Paris on Tuesday, as a vote for democracy and “universalism”.

Yet this view is roundly rejected by Kanak pro-independence leaders who say these amendments undermine the political status of Indigenous Kanak people, who constitute a minority of the voting population. These leaders also refuse to accept that the decolonisation agenda has been concluded, as loyalists assert.

Instead, they dispute the outcome of the final 2021 referendum which, they argue, was forced on the territory by French authorities too soon after the outbreak of the COVID pandemic. This disregarded the fact that Kanak communities bore disproportionate impacts of the pandemic and were unable able to fully mobilise before the vote. Demands that the referendum be delayed were rejected, and many Kanak people abstained as a result.

In this context, the disputed electoral reforms decided in Paris this week are seen by pro-independence camps as yet another political prescription imposed on Kanak people. A leading figure of one Indigenous Kanak women’s organisation described the vote to me as a solution that pushes “Kanak people into the gutter”, one that would have “us living on our knees”.

Beyond the politics

Many political commentators are likening the violence observed in recent days to the political violence of les événements of the 1980s, which exacted a heavy toll on the country. Yet this is disputed by local women leaders with whom I am in conversation, who have encouraged me to look beyond the central political factors in analysing this crisis.

Some female leaders reject the view this violence is simply an echo of past political grievances. They point to the highly visible wealth disparities in the country. These fuel resentment and the profound racial inequalities that deprive Kanak youths of opportunity and contribute to their alienation.

Women have also told me they’re concerned about the unpredictability of the current situation. In the 1980s, violent campaigns were coordinated by Kanak leaders, they tell me. They were organised. They were controlled.

In contrast, today it is the youth taking the lead and using violence because they feel they have no other choice. There is no coordination. They are acting through frustration and because they feel they have “no other means” to be recognised.

There’s also frustration with political leaders on all sides. Late on Wednesday, Kanak pro-independence political leaders held a press conference. They echoed their loyalist political opponents in condemning the violence and issuing calls for dialogue. The leaders made specific calls to the “youths” engaged in the violence to respect the importance of a political process and warned against a logic of vengeance.

The women civil society leaders I have been speaking to were frustrated by the weakness of this messaging. The women say political leaders on all sides have failed to address the realities faced by Kanak youths. They argue if dialogue remains simply focused on the political roots of the dispute, and only involves the same elites that have dominated the debate so far, little will be understood and little will be resolved.

Likewise, they lament the heaviness of the current “command and control” state security response. It contradicts the calls for dialogue and makes little room for civil society participation of any sort.

These approaches put a lid on grievances, but they do not resolve them. Women leaders observing the current situation are anguished and heartbroken for their country and its people. They say if the crisis is to be resolved sustainably, the solutions cannot be imposed and the words cannot be empty.

Instead, they call for the space to be heard and to contribute to a resolution. Until that time they live with anxiety and uncertainty, waiting for the fires to subside, and the smoke currently hanging over a wounded Noumea to clear.

[Reprinted from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Nicole George is Associate Professor in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Queensland.]

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