12 Apr 2024

Violent clashes in New Caledonia as nickel pact exacerbates tensions

7:14 am on 12 April 2024
Security forces preparing to enter Saint Louis tribe on 9 April 2024 Photo LNC

Security forces preparing to enter Saint Louis tribe on 9 April 2024. Photo: LNC

Fresh clashes erupted on Tuesday in the suburbs of Nouméa between security forces and pro-independence protesters who opposed a nickel pact, offering French assistance to salvage the industry.

The clashes, involving firearms, teargas and stone-throwing, went on for most of Tuesday, blocking access roads to the capital Nouméa, as well as the small towns of Saint-Louis and Mont-Dore.

For most of Tuesday, traffic on the Route Provinciale 1 (RP1) was alternatively opened and closed several times, including when a squadron of French gendarmes intervened to secure the area with long-range shot teargas.

The day began with tyres being burnt on the road and then degenerated into violence from some balaclava-clad members of the protest group, who started throwing stones and sometimes using firearms and Molotov cocktails, authorities alleged.

Security forces said one of their motorbike officers, a woman, was assaulted and her vehicle was stolen.

Two of the protesters are reported to have been arrested for throwing stones.

Pro-independence protesters banners demanding President Louis Mapou’s resignation – Photo NC la 1ère

Pro-independence protesters banners demanding President Louis Mapou’s resignation. Photo: NC la 1ère

Banners were deployed, some reading "Kanaky not for sale", others demanding for New Caledonia's President Louis Mapou (pro-independence) to resign.

Northern mining sites also targeted

Other incidents took place in the northern town of La Foa, in the small mining village of Fonwhary, near a nickel extraction site, where Société Le Nickel carrying trucks were not allowed to use the road.

Mont-Dore mayor Eddy Lecourieux told local Radio Rythme Bleu they have the right to demonstrate, "but they could have done that peacefully".

"Instead, there's always someone who starts throwing stones."

At dusk, the Saint-Louis and Mont-Dore areas were described as under control, but security forces, including armoured vehicles, were kept in place.

"On top of that, there are more marches scheduled this weekend," Lecourieux said.

Pro-independence protesters want to oppose current plans to have a French Constitutional amendment endorsed by France's two houses of Parliament.

As a first step of this Parliamentary process, last week, the Senate endorsed the text, but with some amendments.

Pro-France movements also want to march on the same day, in support of the amendment.

If endorsed, it would allow French citizens to vote at New Caledonia's local elections, provided they have been residing there for an uninterrupted ten years.

Pro-independent parties however strongly oppose the project, saying this would be tantamount to making indigenous Kanaks a minority at local polls, and would open the door to a "recolonisation" of New Caledonia through population movements.

A similar high-risk configuration of two marches took place on March 28 in downtown Nouméa, with over five hundred French security forces deployed to keep both crowds away from each other at all times.

French authorities are understood to be holding meeting after meeting to fine-tune the security setup ahead of the weekend.

Florent Perrin, the president of Mont-Dore's "Citizens' Association", told media local residents were being "taken hostages" and the unrest "must cease".

He urged political authorities to "make decisions on all political and economic issues" New Caledonia currently faces.

Perrin called on the local population to remain calm, but invited them to "individually lodge complaints" based on "breach of freedom of circulation".

"On our side too, tensions are beginning to run high, so we have to remain calm and not respond to those acts of provocation," he said.

Pro-independence protesters blockade the village of La Foa on 9 April 2024 - Photo NC la 1ère

Pro-independence protesters blockade the village of La Foa on 9 April 2024. Photo: NC la 1ère

The "nickel pact" in question

The clashes and blockades took place on the same day the local congress was discussing whether it should give the green light to New Caledonia's President Louis Mapou to sign the French "nickel pact", worth around 200 million Euros in French emergency aid.

In return, France is asking that New Caledonia's whole nickel industry should undergo a far-reaching plan of reforms, in order to make nickel less expensive and therefore more attractive on the world market.

The pact aims to salvage New Caledonia's embattled nickel industry and its three factories - one in the north of the main island, Koniambo (KNS), and two in the south, Société le Nickel (SLN), a subsidiary of French giant Eramet, and Prony Resources.

KNS' nickel-processing operations were put in sleep, non-productive mode in February after its major financier, Anglo-Swiss Glencore, said it could no longer sustain losses totalling 14 billion Euros over the past ten years, and that it was now seeking an entity to buy its 49 percent shares.

The other two companies, SLN and Prony, are also facing huge debts and a severe risk of bankruptcy due to the new nickel conditions on the world market, now dominated by new players such as Indonesia, which produces a much cheaper and abundant metal.

New ultimatum from Northern Province

On Tuesday, Northern province President Paul Néaoutyine added further pressure and threatened to suspend all permits for mining activities in his province's nine sites, where southern nickel companies are also extracting.

In a release, Néaoutyine made references to payment guarantees deadlines on April 10, 2024, that had not been honoured by SLN.

It is understood SLN's owner, Eramet, was scheduled to meet in a general assembly in Paris later on Tuesday.

The French pact - France is also a stakeholder in Eramet - would also help SLN provide longer-term guarantees.

Southern Province President and Les Loyalists (pro-France) party leader Sonia Backès alleged on Tuesday that Néaoutyine wants to do everything he can to shut down SLN and block the nickel pact

"Now things are very clear - before it was all undercover; now it's out in the open," she said.

"Now we will do everything to maintain SLN, because this means three thousand jobs at stake."

Congress dragging its feet, unlikely alliances

On Tuesday, New Caledonia's Congress was holding a meeting behind closed doors to once again discuss the French pact.

The Congress decided to postpone its decision and, instead, suggested setting up a "special committee" to further examine the pact and the condition it is tied to, and more generally, "the nickel industry's current challenges".

Opponents to the agreement mainly argue that it would pose a risk of "loss of sovereignty" for New Caledonia on its precious metal resource.

They also consider the nickel industry stake-holding companies are not committing enough and that, instead, New Caledonia's government is asked to raise up to US$80 million, mainly by way of new taxes imposed on taxpayers.

Last week, a group of Congressmen, mostly from pro-independence Union Calédonienne, one of the four components of the pro-independence FLNKS, with the backing of one pro-France party, Calédonie Ensemble, had a motion adopted to postpone one more time the signature of the pact.

President Mapou defies pro-independence Congressmen

President Louis Mapou, himself from the pro-independence side, urged the motioners to "let [him] sign" last week during a Congress public sitting.

"Let's do it... Authorise us to go at it ... What are you afraid of?" he said.

"Are we afraid of our militants?"

Mapou said if there was no swift Congress response and support to sign the pact, for which he himself asked the Congress for endorsement, he would "take [his] responsibility" and go ahead anyway.

"I will honour the commitment I made to the French State."

He said if they wanted to to sanction him with a motion of no confidence to go ahead, and he was not afraid of this.

Mapou also told the Congress' pro-independence side that he believed they kept postponing any Congress decision on the matter "because you want to engage into negotiations as part of [New Caledonia's] political agreements".

Last week, Backès, who expressed open support for Mapou's "courage", told Radio Rythme Bleu she and Mapou had both received death threats.

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