Politics & News

New Caledonia Riots: France’s Ambitions in the Pacific at Risk

France has deployed police reinforcements in New Caledonia, after days of unrest in the Pacific archipelago claimed the lives of 6 people and injured hundreds, reported the Associated Press (AP).

The unrest erupted on Monday after lawmakers in Paris discussed amending the French constitution to allow more residents to vote in provincial elections. Indigenous leaders fear this will enable more French voters to cast their ballots, diminishing the political influence of the native people.

Violence Eruption

New Caledonia is a group of mineral-rich islands located between Australia and Fiji. It has been under French control since the 19th century. The population of New Caledonia is around 300,000 people, of whom 112,000, or 40%, are indigenous Kanak people.

New Caledonia Riots
Burnt cars after protests in New Caledonia

The relationship between native Kanaks and white settlers has been fraught. This is the worst unrest the islands have seen since the 1980s. New Caledonian pro- and anti-independence parties issued a joint statement calling for “calm and reason.”

According to BBC, France agreed to give the territory more political autonomy under the 1998 Nouméa Accord. It also agreed to limit voting in provincial and assembly elections to those who were residents then. Since then, more than 40,000 French nationals have moved there.

On Wednesday, the National Assembly in Paris approved a bill that will allow residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years to vote in provincial elections. This has triggered protests that turned into armed clashes and violence.

France declared a state of emergency, imposing a night-time curfew, and banning gatherings, carrying weapons, and selling alcohol. Authorities have shut down schools, closed Noumea’s airport to commercial flights, and arrested hundreds of people.

Regional Concern

Other neighboring Pacific nations are monitoring the situation closely, expressing their concern. A regional group called the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSP) issued a statement on Wednesday, blaming France for the current violence.

New Caledonia Riots
French patrol

They said: “These events could have been avoided if the French government had listened and not proceeded to press forward with the Constitutional Bill aimed at… changing the distribution of seats in Congress.”

The group members include Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia’s Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front.

Blame Game

France accused Azerbaijan of interfering in the politics of New Caledonia, fomenting riots and violence. The French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said in a TV interview that it was “a reality” that certain pro-independence leaders in New Caledonia had “made a deal” with Azerbaijan.

He stressed that France won’t let other countries interfere in its Overseas territory, reported Euronews. Darmanin said: “Even if there are attempts at interference … France is sovereign on its own territory, and so much the better.”

On their part, Azerbaijani diplomats denied any connection to the riots. They issued a statement denouncing Darmanin’s remarks as “unfounded” and “a campaign of slander.” They said: “We deny any link between the leaders of the Caledonian freedom struggle and Azerbaijan.”

The allegations were fueled by images shared on social media. They show pro-independence New Caledonians wearing t-shirts featuring the Azerbaijani flag. Relations between France and Azerbaijan have been fraught. During Azerbaijan’s operation to retake control of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in 2023, France, home to a large Armenian diaspora, has taken a hard line.

Reinforcing China’s Narrative

The arrival of hundreds of French police and the violent response to the protests could pose a risk to French President Emmanuel Macron’s aspirations to strengthen his country’s influence in the Pacific. According to analysts, this could reinforce China’s narrative about the West’s colonial ambitions in the Pacific.

New Caledonia Riots
A woman waving a Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front flag

Graeme Smith, Pacific analyst at the Australian National University, said that the French police crackdown in New Caledonia could boost China’s weaponization of the colonial legacy of Western nations in the Pacific. He told Reuters: “It will play very well because China has been discovering some of the colonial history of the Pacific.”

In a similar vein, Oliver Nobetau, a Pacific fellow at Lowy Institute and a former adviser to Papua New Guinea government, warned that the heavy-handed response of French police would backfire in the region. He said: “France is trying to re-emerge as a Pacific partner and this will evidently not help that image.”

US-China Contest

Pacific Islands are strategically located between the US and Asia. They have been at the center of a contest for political influence between China and the US and its allies, such as Australia and France. Beijing has tried to bolster its security ties in the Pacific Islands.

In 2022, China signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands, raising alarm in Washington. However, Beijing failed to strike a Pacific-wide trade and security deal.

As a result, China has directed its attention and financial support to the Melanesian Spearhead Group, established in 1986 to back decolonization for Melanesian countries still under colonial rule.

In August, leaders of the Melanesian Spearhead Group convened to review security cooperation with China, but no decision has been made.

Short link :

Related Stories

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button