Macron puts New Caledonia voting reform on hold after riots

Legend, Many Kanaks – who we see here demonstrating as Mr. Macron’s procession passes – want independence from France

  • Author, Thomas Spender
  • Role, BBC News

President Emmanuel Macron said he would not impose controversial voting reform in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia following deadly riots.

Speaking during a visit to the main island, Macron said local leaders should engage in dialogue to find an alternative deal for the archipelago’s future.

Six people, including two police officers, were killed and hundreds injured in riots, looting and arson.

Currently, the right to vote in the territory is reserved for indigenous Kanaks and those who arrived from France before 1998.

The planned reform would allow more French residents – including those who have lived in New Caledonia for at least 10 years – to vote.

Many Kanaks – who make up around 40% of the population – fear it will dilute their political voice and make it harder to hold a future independence referendum.

“I promised that this reform would not pass today in the current context,” Mr. Macron said.

“We will allow a few weeks to allow tensions to ease and tolerance for dialogue to find a broad agreement” between all parties, he added, specifying that he would take stock of the situation in a month.

Legend, Mr Macron met with pro-independence and anti-independence leaders during his visit

However, Mr Macron insisted the result of the last independence referendum, in which residents voted to stay in France, could not be called into question.

New Caledonia has held four referendums on independence. The first two showed slim majorities for the rest of France. The third was boycotted by pro-independence parties after the authorities refused to postpone the vote due to the Covid epidemic.

During his trip, Mr. Macron had meetings with pro-independence and anti-Caledonian leaders.

If the two sides can reach a new agreement, the territory could then vote to adopt it in a referendum, he said.

Under the Noumea Accord of 1998, France agreed to give New Caledonia – a group of islands between Australia and Fiji that became French territory in the 19th century – more political autonomy and limit the right to vote in provincial and legislative elections to those who were then residents there.

Since then, more than 40,000 French nationals have settled in New Caledonia.

Last week, the National Assembly in Paris proposed granting the right to vote to French residents who have lived in the territory for 10 years, sparking a violent reaction.

The unrest caused damage estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars. None of the six people killed were shot by French security forces, according to French prosecutors.

The state of emergency will be lifted when all the protesters’ barricades have been dismantled, Mr. Macron added. He described the violence as an “unprecedented insurrection” that no one saw coming.

A 3,000-strong force deployed from France would remain in the territory, including during the Paris Summer Olympics if necessary, he said.

The airport in Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia, remains closed to commercial flights.

Military flights transported around 300 Australian and 50 New Zealand holidaymakers out of the country. They reported witnessing arson and looting and experiencing food shortages.

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