16 May 2024

State of Emergency declared in New Caledonia as Paris vote sparks “deadly spiral” of violent unrest

1:22 pm on 16 May 2024
A group of protestors turned rioters on the streets of Noumea. May 2024

A group of protestors turned rioters on the streets of Noumea. May 2024 Photo: Nouvelle Caledonie La 1ere

Analysis - The French President Emmanuel Macron has declared a state of emergency in New Caledonia after several days of civil unrest in the capital.

Four people are dead due to the unrest and violence in the capital, Noumea.

France TV is reporting a 22-year-old gendarme who was seriously wounded has become the fourth death.

Macron has posted on Twitter, saying the nation is thinking of the gendarme's family.

Hundreds of others have been injured with more casualties expected as French security forces struggle to restore law and order in Noumea amid reports of clashes between rioters and "militia" groups being formed by city residents.

According to local media, the state of emergency was announced following a defence and national security council meeting in Paris between the Head of State and several members of the government including the Prime Minister and ministers of the Armed Forces, the Interior, the Economy and Justice.

In a press conference yesterday evening in Noumea, the French High Commissioner to New Caledonia, Louis Le Franc, told reporters he would call on the military forces if necessary and that reinforcements will be sent today.

Local leaders called for the state of emergency

The state of emergency declaration comes after the deteriorating situation on Wednesday prompted Southern Province President Sonia Backès to call upon French President Macron to declare a state of emergency so as to allow the Army to back up the police.

"Houses and businesses are being burnt down and looted; organised gangs are terrorising the population and putting at risk the life of inhabitants," Backes said.

French High Commissioner Louis Le Franc speaking at a media conference on Wednesday in Noumea.


"Law enforcement agents are certainly doing a great job but are obviously overwhelmed by the magnitude of this insurrection...Night and day, hastily formed citizen militias find themselves confronted with rioters fuelled by hate and the desire for violence.

"In the next few hours, without a massive and urgent intervention from France, we will lose control of New Caledonia", Sonia Backes wrote, adding "We are now in a state of civil war".

She was later joined by elected MPs for New Caledonia's constituency, MP Nicolas Metzdorf and Senator Georges Naturel, who also appealed to the French President to declare a State of Emergency.

"Mr President, we are at a critical moment and you alone can save New Caledonia", they wrote.

Over 1700 law enforcement personnel deployed

During a press conference on Wednesday evening, French High Commissioner Louis Le Franc said two persons had died from gunshot wounds and another two were seriously injured during a clash between rioters and a local "civil defence group".

He said the gunshot came from one member of the civil defence group who "was trying to defend himself".

Other reliable sources later confirmed to RNZ the death toll from the same clash was at least three persons.

Louis Le Franc said in the face of an escalating situation, the total number of law enforcement personnel deployed on the ground, mainly in Nouméa, was now about 1000 gendarmes, seven hundred police, as well as members of SWAT intervention groups from gendarmerie (GIGN) and police (RAID).

Louis Le Franc said a dusk-to-dawn curfew had been extended for another 24 hours.

"People have to respect the curfew, not go to confrontations with weapons, not to burn businesses, shops, pharmacies, schools."

Police reinforcements have arrived in New Caledonia where two days of violent unrest has affected the capital.

Police reinforcements have arrived in New Caledonia where two days of violent unrest has affected the capital. Photo: Facebook / INFO ROUTE NC et COUP DE GUEULE ROUTE

Armed groups formed on both sides as international flights remain cancelled

All commercial flights to and from the Nouméa-La Tontouta international airport remain cancelled for Thursday, affecting an estimated 2,500 passengers to and from Auckland, Sydney, Brisbane, Nadi, Papeete, Tokyo and Singapore.

The situation on the ground is being described by local leaders as guerrilla warfare bordering on a civil war, as more civilian clashes were reported on Wednesday on the outskirts of Nouméa, with opposing parties armed with weapons such as hunting rifles.

"We have now entered a dangerous spiral, a deadly spiral... There are armed groups on both sides and if they don't heed calls for calms, there will be more deaths.

"I sense dark hours coming in New Caledonia... The current situation is not meant to take this terrible twist, a form of civil war", French High Commissioner Louis Le Franc warned on Wednesday.

Le Franc said if needed, he would call on "military" reinforcements.

Also on Wednesday, a group of armed rioters heading towards Nouméa's industrial zone of Ducos, prompted an intervention from the RAID police squad.

As Noumea residents wake up on Thursday the situation in Noumea remains volatile as, over the past 24 hours, pro-France citizens have started to set up "civil defence groups", barricades and roadblocks to protect themselves.

Some of them have started to call themselves "militia" groups.

A burnt climbing wall is pictured in the Magenta district of Noumea on May 15, 2024 amid protests linked to a debate on a constitutional bill aimed at enlarging the electorate for upcoming elections of the overseas French territory of New Caledonia.

A burnt climbing wall is pictured in the Magenta district of Noumea on 15 May, 2024. Photo: AFP / Theo Rouby

Political leaders in New Caledonia call for calm

On the political front, there have been more calls for calm and appeasement from across the spectrum.

After New Caledonian president Louis Mapou on Tuesday asked for a return to reason, the umbrella body for pro-independence political parties, the FLNKS, on Wednesday also issued a release appealing for "calm and appeasement" and the lifting of blockades.

While "regretting" and "deploring" the latest developments, the pro-independence umbrella group recalled it had called for the French government's proposed amendment on New Caledonia's electoral changes to be withdrawn in order to "preserve the conditions to reach a comprehensive political agreement between all parties and the French State".

"However, this situation cannot justify putting at risk peace and all that has been implemented towards a lasting 'living together' and exit the colonisation system," the FLNKS statement said.

The FLNKS also noted that in order to be validated, the controversial amendment still needs to be put to the vote of the French Congress (Meeting of the Assembly and the Senate) and that French President Macron has indicated he would not convene the gathering of both Houses of the French Parliament immediately "to give a chance for dialogue and consensus".

"This is an opportunity FLNKS wishes to seize so that everyone's claims, including those engaged in demonstrations, can be heard and taken into account", the release said.

The President of the Loyalty Islands province, Jacques Lalié (pro-independence) on Wednesday called for "appeasement" and for "our youths to respect for the values symbolised by our flag and maintain dignity in their engagement without succumbing to provocations".

"Absolute priority must be given to dialogue and the search for intelligence to reach a consensus," Jacques Lalié said.

The vote in Paris which sparked unrest in Noumea

Overnight on Wednesday in Paris, the French National Assembly voted 351 in favour (mostly right-wing parties) and 153 against (mostly left wing parties) the proposed constitutional amendments that sparked the ill-fated protests in Noumea on Monday.

French National Assembly in session.

French National Assembly in session. Photo: Assemblée Nationale

This followed hours of heated debate about the relevance of such a text, which New Caledonia's pro-independence parties strongly oppose because, they say, it poses a serious risk and could shrink their political representation in local institutions (New Caledonia has three provincial assemblies as well as the local parliament, called its Congress).

New Caledonia's pro-independence parties had been calling for the government to withdraw the text and instead, to send a high-level "dialogue mission" to the French Pacific archipelago.

The text, which is designed to open the restricted list of voters to those who have been residing in New Caledonia for an uninterrupted ten years, has however not completed its legislative path.

After its endorsement by the Senate (on 2 April 2024, with amendments) and the National Assembly (on 15 May 2024), it still needs to be put to the vote of the French Congress (a joint sitting of France's both Houses of Parliament, the National Assembly and the Senate) and obtain a required majority of three fifths, or 60 per cent.

The bigger picture

The proposed constitutional amendements were tabled by French minister for home Affairs and Overseas, Gérald Darmanin.

Mr Darmanin has defended his bill by saying the original restrictions to New Caledonia's electoral roll put in place under temporary measures prescribed by the 1998 Nouméa Accord - a pathway to decolonisation for New Caledonia inscribed in the French Constution which only allows people who had been established in New Caledonia before 1998 to vote in local elections - needed to be readjusted in order to restore "a minimum of democracy" in agreement with the principle of universal suffrage and France's Constitution and international commitments.

Those principles were at the centre of the heated discussions during the two days of debate in the National Assembly, where strong words were often exchanged between parties holding opposing views and varying interpretations of the Nouméa Accord.

Over 25 years after its implementation, the Accord, a kind of de facto embryonic Constitution for New Caledonia, is now deemed by France to have reached its expiry date after three self-determination referendums were held in 2018, 2020 and 2021, all resulting in a rejection of independence for the French Pacific archipelago.

However there is some controversy surrounding the third and final referendum which although conducted legally was boycotted by a majority of the pro-independence Kanak political groups and their supporters resulting in an overwhelming "no" vote to Independence from France a stark difference from the results in the earlier referenda.

Results of New Caledonia referenda on Independence from France

  • 2018: 56.67 percent voted against independence and 43.33 percent in favour.
  • 2020: 53.26 percent voted against independence and 46.74 percent in favour.
  • 2021: 96.5 percent voted against independence and 3.5 percent in favour.

Since the third referendum was held, numerous attempts have been made to convene all local political parties around the same table to come up with what would be a successor to the Nouméa Accord.

This would have to be the result of inclusive and bipartisan talks, but those meetings have not yet taken place, at least under the inclusive conditions, mainly because of differences between (but also within) both pro-independence and pro-France parties.

Darmanin's attempts to bring these talks to reality have so far failed, even though he has travelled to New Caledonia not less than seven times over the past two years.

From the pro-independence parties' point of view, Darmanin is now regarded as not the right person anymore and seen as responsible for those "inclusive" talks that have now stalled.

Constitutional intricacies

There is also a relation between the much-desired talks and the Constitutional Amendment project: the text contains a clause saying that if an agreement is reached by New Caledonia's parties on a forward-looking and consensual text on its political future, then the whole amendment (even if it has finally been endorsed by France's parliament) would become null and void, and the new text would then become the priority basis for a new Constitutional Amendment.

The "local" agreement would have to take place as late as ten days before the next local provincial elections, which themselves have been postponed to 15 December 2024 at the latest.

French opposition MPs, earlier this week, have labelled this "self-destruct" clause as "bizarre", but have in the same breath marvelled at its creative and innovative character.

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech in Nouméa on 26 July 2023

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech in Nouméa on 26 July 2023 Photo: Supplied

Macron invites New Caledonia's leaders for talks

As New Caledonia continues to face the most unprecedented unrest in its capital city in recent history the French President Emmanuel Macron has sent an invitation by way of a letter, to New Caledonia's politicians, for a meeting in Paris.

"It will be about finding collectively and responsibly, an agreement that would go beyond the sole electoral roll issue while taking into account developments and aspirations of everyone", he wrote.

It could also deal with urgent issues facing New Caledonia, such as the current economic crisis (mainly in the nickel industry sector).

Macron also said he would not convene the French Congress immediately, but would allow some time until he does, probably by the end of June.

The proposed Paris meeting could take place by the end of May and would be held under the supervision of the French Prime minister Gabriel Attal.

"I still believe that an agreement is possible", the French Head of State wrote, adding that if this happened, then "a new Constitutional Bill will be tabled by the government".

Macron also strongly condemned, in the same letter, the "inacceptable violence, destruction, intimidation and assaults against persons, property and law enforcement agents" that has taken place in New Caledonia for the past three days.

On Wednesday, reacting to the latest developments and the first fatalities in Nouméa, he also appealed for calm.

French Prime minister Gabriel Attal, speaking before the National Assembly on Tuesday, underlined the opportunity for those talks to resume and called on New Caledonia's parties to "seize the opportunity of this extended hand" to resume dialogue.

"Only dialogue will allow us to appease tensions. Our hand remains extended. We need an inclusive political solution that can satisfy all stakeholders and that's why we are offering New Caledonian leaders to discuss and build together the future of New Caledonia", he told Parliament during question time.

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