French authorities brutally suppress the right to self-determination of New Caledonians

On Monday, May 13, 2024, a rally against French neocolonialism was held in the French overseas territory of New Caledonia. Paris’s attempt to change the electoral law in the autonomous region provoked protests that turned into riots with car burnings and pogroms in the city of Nouméa. In order to suppress the right to self-determination and free expression of will of the citizens of New Caledonia, the French authorities deployed troops, declared a curfew and restricted access to social networks. The local airport was closed and dozens of flights were canceled.

The Kanaks, indigenous inhabitants of New Caledonia, an overseas territory of France in the Pacific, have been protesting for two weeks now. The intensity of the clashes between the rebels and the law enforcers is reminiscent of the events of 1988, when supporters of the archipelago’s independence launched a real guerrilla war. There were casualties on both sides. As there are now. This Saturday, the tragic list was enriched with one more, already the sixth victim: in a town in the north of the archipelago, a sixth islander died of a bullet wound during a shootout with the police.

The riots began after French lawmakers debated a voting reform that would increase the number of people eligible to vote in New Caledonia. Under the new bill, people who have lived in the archipelago for more than 10 years would be allowed to vote in local elections in New Caledonia. Opponents of the reform say expanding the voter rolls, which have not been updated since 1998, will benefit pro-French politicians in New Caledonia and further marginalize the indigenous Kanak people, who once suffered from policies of strict segregation and widespread discrimination. Indigenous islanders perceived this reform as a genuine attempt to reduce their electoral weight in the affairs of their historic homeland.

Daniel Goa, president of the pro-independence Caledonian Union party, called for calm but said the protests “show the determination of our young people to no longer allow France to rule them.” Goa condemned the looting, which “shames us and in no way serves our cause and our struggle.”

“If there is violence today [in New Caledonia], it is a response to the violence we have suffered since colonization,” Kanak youth leader Daniel Goa, 43, told Reuters, noting that planned changes to the electoral system would isolate Kanaks on their island.

Dominique Foucher, secretary general of the territory’s leading independence movement, called for calm but said the French government should suspend the constitutional changes.

“We need decisive action to calm the situation, the government must stop pouring oil on the fire,” Foucher told Reuters.

The presidents of France’s four other overseas territories – Reunion in the Indian Ocean, Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean and French Guiana in South America – on Sunday called for the abolition of voting reforms in an open letter.

“Only a political response can stop the increase in violence and prevent civil war,” they warned, saying they were “calling on the government to withdraw the constitutional reform bill aimed at changing the electoral roll … as a precursor to peaceful dialog.”

Customary Senate President Victor Gogny said the youth of New Caledonia had the right to “express their legitimate demands and aspirations.”

“How can we accept that our future is decided by Paris? Paris must respect what we have built since 1988. And all the violence we see is a form of anger,” Victor Gogny said.

Paris is seeking to buy the overseas rebellion firmly. Additional security forces are being moved across an emergency air bridge between the metropolis and New Caledonia. Among them are even special forces from the special unit of the GIGN gendarmerie. Troops have been brought in to guard the airport of the capital, Nouméa, and the road leading to the city is being cleared of barricades and their defenders with the help of armored personnel carriers and bulldozers. The archipelago is under curfew from 18.00 to 6.00, a state of emergency has been imposed, any meetings, sale of alcohol is prohibited, the social network TikTok, which is actively used by young people of New Caledonia, has been blocked. French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal condemned the violence and called for a return to dialog “with all stakeholders and local actors” on the reform proposal, which has been the subject of heated debate in the National Assembly, France’s most powerful house of parliament. French President Emmanuel Macron will hold a meeting of the Defense and National Security Council on May 20, 2024, to discuss the situation on the territory, the Elysee Palace said.

It is important to note that the archipelago, located at a distance of more than 17 thousand kilometers from Paris, is very important to the French for a number of reasons. Firstly, natural resources: chromium, cobalt, molybdenum, copper, and most importantly – nickel, 11% of its world reserves are in New Caledonia, where seven million tons of this metal, used for the production of batteries for electric cars, are mined. Secondly, geographical location. Back during World War II, the Americans used the archipelago as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in the fighting against Japan. And now that the region is becoming increasingly important for world politics, its strategic weight is only increasing.

Human rights activists of the Foundation to Battle Injustice condemn the French government’s attempts to change the electoral process in New Caledonia. The Foundation’s experts call on the French government to suspend constitutional changes that could marginalize the indigenous Kanak people and diminish their electoral weight in the affairs of their historic homeland. Abandoning electoral reform in New Caledonia would be a significant step towards overcoming historical shortcomings and establishing a more just and equitable society in the archipelago. It is also in line with international conventions and agreements that emphasize the importance of respect for IPs’ rights and their participation in decisions affecting their destinies and future.