New Caledonia protests: Macron urges calm as 130 arrested amid anger over voting change

More than 130 people have been arrested in New Caledonia, the government said, after violent protests rocked the French Pacific archipelago and Paris adopted the constitutional changes that angered pro-independence forces.

Protests against the changes turned violent on Monday night, with shots fired at security forces, vehicles torched and shops looted in the worst unrest the French overseas territory has seen since the 1980s.

In response, authorities deployed a heavy security contingent, imposed a curfew, banned public gatherings and closed the main airport.

“More than 130 arrests have been made and several dozen rioters have been taken into custody and will be brought before the courts,” the French high commission of the Republic in New Caledonia said in a statement on Wednesday morning.

Describing the “serious public disturbances” as ongoing, the high commission decried widespread looting and torching of businesses and public property, including schools.

It added that classes will be postponed until further notice and that the main airport was closed to commercial flights.

The unrest flared as lawmakers in France debated a bill that would expand voter eligibility in local elections to include French nationals who have lived on the island for more than 10 years, a change critics fear could marginalise Indigenous people.

After lengthy and at times tense debates, the National Assembly in Paris voted for the change shortly after midnight, by 351 votes to 153.

Afterwards, French president Emmanuel Macron appealed for calm on all sides.

In a letter to New Caledonian representatives, he urged them to “unambiguously condemn all this violence” and “call for calm” as discussions over the territory’s future resume.

On Tuesday, French MPs voted in favour of a constitutional bill aimed at enlarging the electorate of the New Caledonia. Photograph: Geoffroy van der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images

Macron has been seeking to reassert his country’s importance in the Pacific region, where China and the United States are vying for influence but France has a strategic footprint through territories that include New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

Lying between Australia and Fiji, New Caledonia is one of several French territories spanning the globe from the Caribbean and Indian Ocean to the Pacific that remain part of France in the post-colonial era.

In the Noumea Accord of 1998, France vowed to gradually give more political power to the Pacific island territory of nearly 300,000 people.

Under the agreement, New Caledonia has held three referendums over its ties with France, all rejecting independence. But independence retains support, particularly among the Indigenous Kanak people.

The Noumea Accord has also meant that New Caledonia’s voter lists have not been updated since 1998 – meaning that island residents who arrived from mainland France or elsewhere in the past 25 years do not have the right to take part in provincial polls.

The French government has branded the exclusion of one out of five people from voting as “absurd”, while separatists fear that expanding voter lists would benefit pro-France politicians and reduce the weight of the Kanaks.

Simmering protests over the planned changes to voter eligibility took a violent turn on Monday night, with groups of young masked or hooded demonstrators taking over several roundabouts and confronting police, who responded with non-lethal rounds.

One business group said about 30 shops, factories and other sites in and around the capital Noumea had been set ablaze, while an AFP journalist saw burned-out cars and the smoking remains of tyres and wooden pallets littering the streets.

Firefighters said they had received about 1,500 calls overnight and responded to 200 blazes.

Even after the curfew was put in place on Tuesday, there were acts of vandalism overnight, with the store of a major sports brand ransacked.

A prison rebellion involving 50 detainees in the Camop-Est facility subsided after security forces regained control, local officials said.

“Violence is never a solution,” prime minister Gabriel Attal told reporters during a trip to eastern France. He said the government’s “priority … is to re-establish order, calm and serenity” in New Caledonia.

Pro-independence party leader Daniel Goa asked the youths to “go home”, and condemned the looting. But he added: “The unrest of the last 24 hours reveals the determination of our young people to no longer let France take control of them.”

The main figure of the non-independence camp, the former minister Sonia Backes, denounced what she described as anti-white racism of demonstrators who burned down the house of her father, a man in his 70s who was exfiltrated by the security forces.

“If he was not attacked because he was my father, he was at least attacked because he was white,” she told BFMTV.

The Guardian

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