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Violent protests erupt in French Pacific territory

15-05-2024

PARIS: Violence has erupted in New Caledonia, a French overseas territory in the South Pacific, after lawmakers in Paris discussed a draft constitutional amendment to allow recent arrivals to the territory to vote in provincial elections.

The bill, which some local leaders fear will dilute the vote of indigenous Kanak, is the latest flashpoint in decades-long tussle over France’s role in the island.

The protests prompted authorities to shut the international airport, impose a curfew in the capital Noumea and call for police reinforcements as businesses and vehicles were set alight.

Set in the warm waters of the southwest Pacific, some 1,500 km (930 miles) east of Australia, New Caledonia is home to 270,000 people, including 41% Melanesian Kanaks and 24% of European origin, mostly French.

The archipelago was given its name by British explorer Captain James Cook in 1774. It was annexed by France in 1853 and was used as a penal colony until shortly before the turn of the 20th century.

New Caledonia, one of five island territories spanning the Indo-Pacific held by France, is central to Macron’s plan to increase French influence in the Pacific.

The world’s No. 3 nickel producer, New Caledonia lies at the heart of a geopolitically complex maritime region, where China and the United States are jostling for power and influence in security and trade.

Without naming China, Macron has previously said France’s drive to expand its influence in the Pacific was to ensure a “rules-based development.”

New Caledonia became a French overseas territory in 1946. Starting in the 1970s, in the wake of a nickel boom that drew outsiders, tensions rose on the island, with various conflicts between Paris and Kanak independence movements.

A 1998 Noumea Accord helped end the conflict by outlining a path to gradual autonomy and restricting voting to the indigenous Kanak and migrants living in New Caledonia before 1998. The accord allowed for three referendums to determine the future of the country. In all three, independence was rejected.

“Tonight, France is more beautiful because New Caledonia has decided to stay part of it,” Macron said after the result of the most recent vote in 2021.

Nonetheless, the 2021 poll was boycotted by pro-independence parties due to the coronavirus pandemic, and there remains lingering scepticism over the legitimacy of the result. Under the terms of the Noumea Accord, voting in provincial elections was restricted to people who had resided in New Caledonia prior to 1998, and their children. The measure was aimed at giving greater representation to the Kanaks, who had become a minority population.

Paris views the current arrangement as undemocratic and wants to open up the electorate to include people who have lived in New Caledonia for at least 10 years. The French Senate passed a proposed constitutional reform along these lines in April, which is now being discussed by lower house lawmakers, with a final vote scheduled later on Tuesday.

Macron’s office said on Sunday that if lawmakers pass the constitutional amendment, he will delay rubber-stamping it into law. Instead, he would invite representatives of the territory’s population to Paris for talks to reach a negotiated settlement. Authorities in the French-ruled Pacific island of New Caledonia sent more police onto the streets, shut the international airport and imposed a curfew in the capital after protests over the territory’s voting system turned violent.

New Caledonia’s capital Noumea was covered by a thick cloud of black smoke as night fell and the curfew started, local broadcaster NC La 1ere reported, adding that a local sport facility had been set ablaze. (Int’l News Desk)

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