France Imposes Curfew In New Caledonia After Unrest By People Who Have Long Sought Independence

The president of the pro-independence Caledonian Union party, Daniel Goa, called for calm but said the protests “reveal the determination of our young people to no longer let France rule them.”

France announces a two-day curfew in New Caledonia

Authorities in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia announced a two-day curfew and banned gatherings on Tuesday after violent unrest on the vast archipelago with decades of tensions between indigenous Kanaks seeking independence and colonizers' descendants who want to remain part of France.

The French Interior Ministry announced that police reinforcements were being sent to the island that long served as a prison colony and now hosts a French military base. The airport was shut down and dozens of flights were cancelled, stranding thousands of passengers.

The president of the pro-independence Caledonian Union party, Daniel Goa, called for calm but said the protests “reveal the determination of our young people to no longer let France rule them.” Goa condemned the looting that “dishonors us and in no way serves our cause and our fight.”

The territory's top French official, High Commissioner Louis Le Franc, said 46 security forces had been injured and 48 people arrested.

Le Franc said the capital, Nouméa, had “high intensity” disturbances overnight Monday to Tuesday that damaged video surveillance equipment and numerous stores. Schools were closed on Tuesday, and most businesses remained shut. Hundreds of cars were burned, and dozens of businesses and homes could be seen in flames on videos posted on social media.

French media reported that the unrest started with protests against voting reforms that French lawmakers are debating in Paris which would increase the number of people who could cast ballots in New Caledonia.

Opponents of the reforms say expanding voter lists that have not been updated since 1998 would benefit pro-France politicians in New Caledonia and further marginalize the indigenous Kanak people, who once suffered from strict segregation policies and widespread discrimination.

People of European descent in New Caledonia distinguish between descendants of colonizers and descendants of the many prisoners sent to the territory by force. The vast archipelago of about 270,000 people east of Australia is 10 time zones ahead of Paris.

France's Prime Minister Gabriel Attal condemned the violence and called for a return to dialogue “with all stakeholders and all local actors” over the reform proposal that has been submitted to the National Assembly, France's most influential house of parliament.

France's Interior and Overseas Territories Minister Gérald Darmanin asserted that “delinquents and sometimes criminals” were behind the violence. He said four mobile gendarmerie squadrons will be deployed as reinforcements including 15 gendarmes from an elite intervention unit.

Local authorities also appealed for calm. The president of the Customary Senate, Victor Gogny, said the youth have the right “to express its legitimate demands and aspirations” but should strive for “dialogue and consensus.”

Le Franc, the high commissioner, told French broadcaster BFM that clashes between police forces and pro-independence protesters and opponents of the constitutional reform occurred overnight in Mont-Dore, a town in the southeast near the capital. Shots were fired at gendarmes “from high-caliber weapons and hunting rifles,” he said.

He said the situation remained “extremely tense.”

Gatherings in public places were prohibited in the municipalities of Nouméa, Dumbéa, Mont-Dore and Païta, and all travel on public roads there was banned from Tuesday afternoon until Wednesday morning, except for health and public emergencies.

New Caledonia became French in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III, Napoleon's nephew and heir. It became an overseas territory after World War II, with French citizenship granted to all Kanaks in 1957.

A peace deal between rival factions was reached in 1988. A decade later, France promised to grant New Caledonia political power and broad autonomy and hold up to three successive referendums.

The three referendums were organized between 2018 to 2021 and a majority of voters chose to remain part of France instead of backing independence. The pro-independence Kanak people rejected the last referendum's results in 2021, which they boycotted because it was held at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.