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Pacific Elders Voice seeks peaceful end to New Caledonia crisis

 

Deadly riots in New Caledonia. Photo courtesy of Facebook

By James Pearce and Mar-Vic Cagurangan


The Pacific Elders’ Voice today raised concerns over the crisis in New Caledonia, where four people were killed and hundreds were injured resulting from violent protests that prompted France to impose a state of emergency.


“We urge a speedy resolution to the situation through dialogue and underscore the importance of listening to indigenous Kanak voices and the Pacific-wide support for self-determination,” PEV said in a statement.


“The situation is clearly unsustainable and needs urgent attention by Pacific stakeholders, governments and international organizations, including the UN,” the statement reads.


The protests broke out on Monday night following the French National Assembly’s vote to grant voting rights to French citizens who have been residents of New Caledonia for 10 years.


The proposed changes to the French constitution have been met with anger on the streets of the island sandwiched between Australia and Fiji.


Among those killed in the riots was a police officer, who was shot at point blank range. At least 300 more are thought to be wounded, including 64 police officers. Many have barricaded themselves in their homes.


On Wednesday night, a curfew was issued as well as a ban on public gatherings.


However, the authorities began to report serious disturbances in the capital Noumea and even a prison riot, which was brought back under control. Shops and vehicles have been looted and torched. Firefighters say they responded to 200 blazes in a single night and 1,500 calls.

 

Sources for French news outlet France 24 claim that around 30 factories and shops have been set ablaze, with the remains of tires and burned-out cars lining the streets.


The Chamber of Commerce reckons about 80 to 90 percent of its grocery distribution has been disrupted.


France has deployed 1,000 to the island, adding to the 1,300 already present to get the situation under control. Food and medical reinforcements are also on the way.

 

A French government representative said that parts of the island have now “escaped” state control.

 

The situation remained very difficult as of Friday after days of protests.


Hundreds of rioters were ready to make contact with police, but neither side was ready to sit down for talks.


Louis Le Franc, New Caledonia’s high commissioner, has urged the protestors to stop. As have pro-independence leaders. But that is not all. TikTok has been banned on the island as it was being used by the protestors.


An emergency declaration allows troops to detain protestors in their homes, conduct searches, confiscate weapons and restrict their movements.


Around 200 protestors have already been arrested, including a small number of pro-independence campaigners.


The French government has vowed the harshest penalties for offenders. The proposed constitution changes would give non-locals the right to vote in French territories.



Critics argue it undermines the local population’s voice and benefits the pro-French politicians. The motion was resoundingly adopted after lengthy debates, ultimately sparking the riots. But the protestors have blamed the government for the violence.


The indigenous Kanak people, who make up about 40 percent of the island's population, say allowing people who moved there less than 10 years ago to vote would deprive them of their voice.


Political tensions between the Kanaks and pro-French population have been high in New Caledonia for some time. The island has had three independence referendums since 2018.


All have failed, but the results have been close. The island is extremely important for France as the European country tries to cement its place as a strategic power player in the Indo-Pacific region.


The last time France used such a declaration in its overseas territories was in 1985, also in New Caledonia.


French President Emmanuel Macron canceled a planned visit to Normandy and held cabinet-level national security talks.


While the motion still needs to pass both chambers of the French Parliament by the end of June, some hope the people of New Caledonia will be able to strike a new deal with the French government. What that would look like is unclear.


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 In the Pacific region, PEV, a group of former and incumbent Pacific island leaders, called for a "peaceful and positive response to Kanaky aspirations."


PEV said it “supports indigenous self-determination as a core principle to be applied wherever political status remains an issue in the islands of the Pacific.”


In May 2021, PEV wrote to Macron, urging him “to be open to the voice of the leaders of the Kanak peoples and show consideration and respect for their wishes.”


On Dec. 12, 2021, New Caledonia held an independence referendum, which was boycotted by the indigenous people. They noted that due to the Covid-19-related lockdown, they were unable to organize their campaign.


The vote was the third and final to be held under the terms of the Nouméa Accord, following votes in 2018 and 2020, in which independence was rejected by 57 percent and 53 percent respectively.


The results of the third were lopsided in favor of keeping New Caledonia's status quo as part of France. Voters rejected independence, with 96 percent voting against independence and 4 percent in favor. Turnout was estimated at only 44 percent of the electorate, compared to 86 percent in the 2020 referendum.


"Decisions are being made in Paris without meaningful consultation,

participation and sensitivities of a large segment of New Caledonia's

population," PEV said. "It is widely perceived that this is done to marginalize the Kanaky quest for sovereignty over their country, and is a manifestation of the French ‘colonial’ manipulation."




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