‘We will fight until Kanaky is free’: how New Caledonia caught fire | New Caledonia

In the middle of the main road in Rivière-Salée, north of Nouméa, sits a burnt-out car. After days of rioting, young men with masked faces wave a Kanak flag as vehicles pass. All around is desolation. Shops with gutted fronts, burnt buildings, debris on the pavements and roads. Gangs of young people roam the area.

The violence that erupted last week is the worst in New Caledonia since unrest involving independence activists gripped the French Pacific territory in the 1980s.

Anger over France’s plan to impose new voting rules swelled in the archipelago of 270,000 people. The plan would expand the right of French residents living in New Caledonia to vote provincial elections, which some fear would dilute the indigenous Kanak vote. Kanaks make up about 40% of the population.

The images flooding out of Nouméa have been alarming: black smoke billowing above the capital as cars, shops and buildings were set alight. Rioters angry with the electoral change have also set up road barricades, cutting off access to medicine and food. On 15 May, a state of emergency was declared for 12 days and a nationwide curfew remains in place.

Hundreds of military and armed police have been deployed to restore order and keep the peace. As of Friday, five had been killed, including two police officers. The three other people were Kanaks.

On Friday, local authorities said the situation was “calmer”, after hundreds more French marines began arriving.

However, despite appeals for calm from political groups – in particular, the pro-independence parties most angered by the planned voting change – unrest has continued to be reported.

“We don’t want to let our people disappear, we’ll fight until Kanaky is free,” say two rioters, who did not want to be named. They stood near a roundabout in the New Caledonia capital, Noumea, as a vehicle burned.

French soldiers secure the Magenta airport in Noumea. Photograph: Delphine Mayeur/AFP/Getty Images
Shops that have been vandalised by rioters at the Plexus shopping centre in Noumea. Photograph: Chabaud Gill/ABACA/REX/Shutterstock

The men, aged in their 20s, clash with police but say they hold back from vandalism.

“We don’t loot the shops, we try to tell the younger brothers not to do that, not to set fires, but they don’t listen to anyone any more,” one says.

In the southern districts of the city, where mostly Europeans live, fear dominates. People have organised themselves into collectives and set up barricades to defend their homes. Many have guns.

Jérôme’s family has lived in New Caledonia for several generations. He lives in the Sainte-Marie district and is married to a Kanak woman. He says his heart is broken.

“The neighbours have gone mad, they’re armed and ready to shoot, and I’m trying to calm them down. How are we going to get back together after that?” he says.

The frustration that erupted into deadly violence this week has been building for years. The proposed change to electoral law marks the latest flashpoint in long-running tensions over France’s role in the island.

New Caledonia map.

Although New Caledonia has on three occasions rejected independence in referendums, the cause retains strong support among the Kanak people, whose ancestors have lived on the islands for thousands of years. The third referendum, held in 2021, remains contested by pro-independence groups, who had sought to postpone the vote due to the Covid crisis. It nevertheless went ahead and was boycotted by independence groups. This has contributed to rising discontent ever since.

Colonised by France in the second half of the 19th century, New Caledonia has special status with some local powers that have been transferred from Paris.

A woman waves a Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front flag in Noumea. Photograph: Nicolas Job/AP

French lawmakers this week pushed forward plans to allow outsiders who moved to New Caledonia at least 10 years ago to vote in the territory’s elections. Pro-independence forces say that would weaken the Kanak vote.

The proposal must still be approved by both houses of the French parliament later this year. The president, Emmanuel Macron, has said French lawmakers will vote to adopt the constitutional change by the end of June, unless New Caledonia’s opposing sides can strike a new deal.

Opposition to the voting changes within the French territory has been building for months. The Field Action Co-ordination Cell (CCAT) created last November has been driving the protest movement. It is an offshoot of Union Calédonienne, the radical fringe of the pro-independence FLNKS party.

Fiercely opposed to the French interior minister Gérald Darmanin’s proposed constitutional reform that aims to enlarge the electorate – and disappointed by the inability of pro-independence politicians to make their voices heard – it has been mobilising young people in working-class neighbourhoods for several months.

When the CCAT called for people to mobilise against the electoral law change in April, tens of thousands of people – including many young people – flocked from across the territory to march through the streets of Nouméa.

Smoke rises during protests in Noumea. Photograph: Nicolas Job/AP

In a country marked by inequality, where much of the population is young, the message is appealing. New Caledonia has mineral resources – it is one of the world’s largest nickel producers – but wealth is spread unevenly.

Despite attempts to reduce gaps in equality and improve access to employment, Kanak people remain under-represented in positions of power and responsibility.

Kanak people typically have lower levels of education than non-indigenous Caledonians. They are also make up large numbers of the prison population – which has helped fuel a sense of frustration, particularly among young Kanaks living in urban areas.

France’s justice minister, Eric Dupond-Moretti, has called on prosecutors to “take the strongest possible action against the perpetrators of the violence”, while a local business group estimated the damage, concentrated around Noumea, at €200m.

Thierry de Greslan, a representative from the hospital in Noumea, said he was predominantly concerned for his patients amid the deteriorating situation.

“We estimate that three or four people may have died due to lack of access to medical care,” he said, adding that there was a difficulty getting patients and healthcare works to the facility due to road blocks.

With the hospital’s operating rooms running around the clock and his staff prepared for any crisis, De Greslan said his concern was for future.

“We are in an urban guerrilla situation with nightly gunshot wounds,” he said. “We are ready to face this.”

Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press contributed to this report

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