19 May 2024

New Caledonia unrest rocks French politics as leaders plead for end to division

10:50 pm on 19 May 2024
A photograph shows a roadblock set up by residents of Noumea's Sixth Kilometer district, bearing a handwritten message which reads as 'Peace' in Noumea, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia on May 19, 2024. French forces smashed through about 60 road blocks to clear the way from conflict-stricken New Caledonia's capital to the airport but have still not reopened the route, a top government official said on May 19, 2024. (Photo by Delphine Mayeur / AFP)

A roadblock set up by residents of Nouméa's Sixth Kilometre district, bearing a handwritten message reading 'Peace'. Photo: AFP/Delphine Mayeur

With New Caledonia about to enter its second week of deadly riots, French authorities have mounted a massive law enforcement operation to regain control of the main roads in and around the capital Nouméa.

The riots were sparked by a proposed constitutional amendment which would allow more French residents of New Caledonia to vote - a move that pro-independence protesters say would weaken the indigenous Kanak vote.

French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal - after a 12-day presidential state of emergency was declared mid-week - is now chairing daily meetings of an "inter-ministerial crisis cell", also involving Home Affairs and Overseas Minister Gérald Darmanin, his deputy Marie Guévenoux, Army Minister Sébastien Lecornu and Justice Minister Eric Dupont-Moretti.

Attal also hosted a parliamentary "liaison committee" on the situation in New Caledonia meeting on Friday. The meeting involved parliamentary representatives of New Caledonia and parliamentary groups specialising in the French Pacific archipelago.

French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, centre, hosts a parliamentary liaison committee on the situation in New Caledonia.

French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal hosts a parliamentary liaison committee on the situation in New Caledonia. Photo: Supplied/Le Monde

A 'dialogue mission' for New Caledonia

It emerged after the conference that a "dialogue mission" was now very likely to be set up and to travel to New Caledonia in order to restore dialogue and trust between Paris and its South Pacific dependency.

The notion of the mission, which would have to be "impartial" and "bipartisan", had been called by several key players within the French political scene.

This high-level dialogue mission could involve Senate President Gérard Larcher or National Assembly President Yaël Braun-Pivet.

Also mentioned were former prime ministers such as Lionel Jospin (who signed the Nouméa Accord in 1998 on behalf of France) or Edouard Philippe, who has always said he had grown a strong bond with New Caledonia when he was in office (until 2020).

The constitutional amendment was endorsed by the French Senate on 2 April and the National Assembly on 14 May.

However, a joint sitting of both upper and lower houses of the French parliament, which President Emmanuel Macron intended to convene before the end of June to endorse the amendment, was "unlikely to take place within this timeframe", Braun-Pivet and Larcher told French media on Friday.

French High Commissioner Louis Le Franc speaks at a press conference on Sunday.

French High Commissioner Louis Le Franc speaks at a press conference on Sunday. Photo: Screenshot/Facebook

Feeling of 'disrespect'

Several high-level experts and officials said that the spirit of the Matignon Accords - an agreement between loyalists and separatists which was signed in 1988 - had been lost along the way. The breach of that consensus had led to a loss of trust and a growing defiance between New Caledonian pro-independence players and the French State.

They also said the Kanak people felt "disrespect" when a request to delay a referendum at the end of 2021 was ignored. That ended in a boycott of the third and last consultation on New Caledonia's self-determination.

They also resented the fact that at one stage, Loyalist Party leader Sonia Backès had been appointed the French government's Secretary of State (associate minister) for citizenship. She had to resign in September 2023 after losing her bid for a seat at the senatorial elections.

More recently, tensions arose when another prominent pro-France leader, Nicolas Metzdorf, was appointed rapporteur for the the debates on the proposed constitutional amendment at the National Assembly.

Since the beginning of the unrest, there have been calls for the issue to be transferred back to the prime minister's office, as had been an unwritten rule since peace was restored back in the 1980s through negotiations with then-prime minister Michel Rocard.

Experts said this "special bond" was broken in 2020, after French prime minister Edouard Philippe was replaced by Jean Castex and the overseas portfolio was transferred to Sébastien Lecornu, who is now France's minister of armed forces.

Attal was also tasked to set a date for talks to be held in Paris with New Caledonian politicians for inclusive talks on the territory's political future, but several players have refused, saying the time was not appropriate as yet.

'We have pierced all the roadblocks'

On Sunday evening, an operation involving about 600 security personnel was launched in the outskirts of the capital to regain control of the highway between Nouméa and the international airport, French High Commissioner Louis Le Franc said.

The main objective was to "restore republican order", he said, adding that he now had sufficient numbers of law enforcement personnel after reinforcements arrived from France.

"We have pierced all the roadblocks ... Now to restore normal traffic, we have to clean the debris," he said.

Overnight, French special forces would "carry out harassment operations" throughout the greater Nouméa area, he said.

All schools would remain closed next week, New Caledonia's government said in a release.

This aerial view shows burnt out vehicles scattered along a highway on the outskirts of Noumea in France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia on May 19, 2024. French forces launched a "major operation" to regain control of a key road linking New Caledonia's capital Noumea to the main international airport, after a sixth night of violent unrest. Officials said more than 600 heavily armed gendarmes were deployed to secure Route Territoriale 1, the main north-south artery connecting the restive capital with the rest of the island and the outside world. (Photo by AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE

Burnt-out cars along a highway on the outskirts of the capital. Photo: AFP

"This time will be used to work on the best scenarios to prepare the resumption and integrate all of the material, security, human and psychological implications."

Nouméa's archbishop Michel-Marie Calvet, speaking at the Catholic Sunday mass for Pentecost, said the community had "betrayed our faith, our baptism and Jesus" through its divisions.

"Our island, once known as 'closest to paradise', has now become closest to hell. So many political voices are disqualified. They are no longer audible or credible.

"Let's sound a strong signal to say no to violence. Let's call for a stop to violence, let's demand from our elected leaders an obligation of results for a shared peaceful future, of lost and found fraternity."

More buildings were destroyed by fire on Saturday night in Nouméa, including a media centre in Rivière Salée.

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