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Updated May 15, 2024, 2:15pm EDT
Oceania
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France declares state of emergency in Pacific territory of New Caledonia

Insights from The Guardian, The New York Times, Islands Business

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Lilou Garrido Navarro Kherachi/via REUTERS
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France has deployed its armed forces and declared a 12-day state of emergency in New Caledonia amid violent protests against a voting reform that have left at least four people dead.

The protests erupted on Monday after France’s National Assembly’s proposed changes that seek to allow French residents living in the Pacific Island atoll to vote in regional elections; New Caledonia is a French overseas territory. Authorities have set curfews and banned large gatherings to try and curb the protests, as well as closing schools.

Under the contested constitutional changes, French residents who have lived in New Caledonia for ten years would be able to vote in provincial elections. While New Caledonians are also French citizens, protestors say that opening up the vote to other French people living there would dilute the voting power of the indigenous Kanak people.

The Kanak people make up the largest ethnic group in New Caledonia, and voter rolls in the territory — the people allowed to vote in an election — have been frozen since 2007. The reform would expand the roster by 20,000-25,000 people, a New Caledonia historian told the New York Times.

Pro-independence alliances such as the FLNKS (Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front) say that the change shows the French state has “lost its impartiality” over the issue.

New Caledonia is the world’s third largest nickel producer — a high-demand element that adds to the islands’ geopolitical importance.

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Past independence referendums have faltered

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Sources:  
The Guardian, The New York Times

France has slowly been conferring political power to New Caledonia, but so far, three recent independence referendums have failed. In the latest 2021 poll, pro-independence Kanak groups boycotted the vote and rejected the results after far fewer voters turned out than had in previous referendums. At the time, COVID-19 restrictions made campaigning incredibly difficult and the referendum “came during a period of country-wide, customary mourning in the midst of a wave of the virus that disproportionately affected Kanak people.”

Indigenous Kanaks disproportionately face economic challenges

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Sources:  
Nikkei Asia, The Guardian, The New York Times

In an opinion piece in Nikkei Asia about the French lack of concern for Kanak year-long mourning rituals preventing many from taking part in the 2021 independence referendum, Kanak fashion designer Marylou Mahe wrote “30 years of rebalancing toward the Kanak people, we are not being heard, nor considered.” Tens of thousands of New Caledonia’s 280,000 population live below the poverty line and Kanaks make up over 70% of the poor, The Guardian reported. The semi autonomous territory is also a top producer of nickel, a key component in the electric vehicle industry that has a “dirty, destructive and often politically fraught” mining process that makes New Caledonia one of the world’s largest carbon emitters per capita.

New Caledonia holds a geopolitically strategic significance for France

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Sources:  
Islands Business , The Diplomat

In addition to its mineral resources, New Caledonia fulfills France’s desire for a Pacific foothold. French President Emmanual Macron has made multiple visits to the islands in the last three years and pledged new military deployments and investment into the Forces Armées de Nouvelle-Calédonie (FANC — the French armed forces deployed in New Caledonia). But pro-independence parties have expressed concern about how these moves conflict with decolonization, with one party president saying “we will strongly oppose France’s strategy of military occupation and Indo-Pacific Strategy. France only has legitimacy in Oceania through the peoples it administers.”

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