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Explainer: What sparked New Caledonia's deadly civil unrest?

Four people have been confirmed dead so far, there are reports of hundreds injured, numerous fires and mass looting after massive riots and armed clashes between indigenous Kanak pro-independence protestors and security forces in New Caledonia's capital Nouméa, since Monday.

The nation has descended into chaos,with the violence bringing it to a total halt. All international flights are grounded, and a state of emergency has been declared by the French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday.

Paris has sent additional 1200 police officers and is hoping the two-week state of emergency - which gives France "enhanced powers to ensure the maintenance of order, which can include "issue driving bans, house arrests and searches" - will contain the violence and restore order.

Where is New Caledonia located?

New Caledonia is a French overseas territory situated in the southwest Pacific, a three-hour flight from Auckland.

It has a population of about 270,000 people - 44 percent indigenous Kanak (Melanesians), 34 percent Europeans (caldoche), mostly French, as well as other minority groups, including Wallisian and Tahitians. More than a third of the population live in the capital Nouméa.

What is the relationship between New Caledonia and France?

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New Caledonia became a French overseas territory almost eight decades ago in 1946 and has limited autonomy within the French legal system.

The French President is the head of state. New Caledonia has representatives in the French Parliament - both the National Assembly and the Senate. While New Caledonia enjoys a degree of autonomy, it relies on France for defence, internal security, and various other matters.

The Nouméa Accord signed in 1998 outlined a path to gradual autonomy and restricting voting to the indigenous Kanak and migrants living in New Caledonia before 1998. Under the Accord, New Caledonia was allowed for three referendums to determine the future of the country.

What were the results of the New Caledonia independence referendums?

Over 25 years after its implementation, the Accord, a kind of de facto embryonic Constitution for New Caledonia, is now deemed by France to have reached its expiry date after three self-determination referendums were held in 2018, 2020 and 2021.

These all resulted in a rejection of independence for the French Pacific archipelago.

  • 2018: 56.67 percent voted against independence and 43.33 percent in favour.
  • 2020: 53.26 percent voted against independence and 46.74 percent in favour.
  • 2021: 96.5 percent voted against independence and 3.5 percent in favour.

However, the third and final vote in 2021 - during the height of the Covid pandemic - under the Nouméa Accord was boycotted by the pro-indigenous Kanak population. In the 2021 vote, 96 percent of the people voted against independence - with a 44 percent turnout. It was labelled as not valid by Melanesian leaders because of the non-participation of the Kanak people.

"We were in the middle of [the] Covid [pandemic] and the Kanak custom is that when somebody passes the mourn that for one year. So they weren't allowed that freedom," Pacific Islands Forum outgoing secretary-general Henry Puna said on Wednesday.

"As a result, they didn't want to take part in the referendum because they couldn't go against their tradition and go campaigning or do other work. That's disrespectful for the custom."

Since the last referendum was held, numerous attempts have been made to convene all local political parties around the same table to come up with what would be a successor to the Nouméa Accord.

This would have to be the result of inclusive and bipartisan talks, but those meetings have not yet taken place, at least under the inclusive conditions, mainly because of differences between (but also within) both pro-independence and pro-France parties.

How did it end up with violent unrest?

Just after midnight on Wednesday, Paris time, the French National Assembly voted 351 in favour (mostly right-wing parties) and 153 against (mostly left-wing parties) the proposed constitutional amendments that sparked the ill-fated protests on Monday.

This followed hours of heated debate about the relevance of such a text, which New Caledonia's pro-independence parties strongly oppose because, they say, it poses a serious risk and could shrink their political representation in local institutions (New Caledonia has three provincial assemblies as well as the local parliament, called its Congress).

New Caledonia's pro-independence parties had been calling for the government to withdraw the text and instead, to send a high-level "dialogue mission" to Nouméa.

The proposed constitutional amendments were tabled by French minister for home Affairs and Overseas, Gérald Darmanin. The text is designed to "unfreeze" or open the restricted list of voters to those who have been residing in New Caledonia for an uninterrupted ten years.

But it has not completed its legislative path.

After its endorsement by the Senate (on 2 April 2024, with amendments) and the National Assembly (on 15 May 2024), it still needs to be put to the vote of the French Congress (a joint sitting of France's both Houses of Parliament, the National Assembly and the Senate) and obtain a required majority of three fifths, or 60 per cent.

What are the political leaders saying?

There have been more calls for calm and appeasement from across the spectrum. After New Caledonian president Louis Mapou on Tuesday asked for a return to reason, the umbrella body for pro-independence political parties, the FLNKS, on Wednesday also issued a release appealing for "calm and appeasement" and the lifting of blockades.

While "regretting" and "deploring" the latest developments, the pro-independence umbrella group recalled it had called for the French government's proposed amendment on New Caledonia's electoral changes to be withdrawn in order to "preserve the conditions to reach a comprehensive political agreement between all parties and the French State".

"However, this situation cannot justify putting at risk peace and all that has been implemented towards a lasting 'living together' and exit the colonisation system," the FLNKS statement said.

The FLNKS also noted that in order to be validated, the controversial amendment still needs to be put to the vote of the French Congress (Meeting of the Assembly and the Senate) and that French President Macron has indicated he would not convene the gathering of both Houses of the French Parliament immediately "to give a chance for dialogue and consensus".

"This is an opportunity FLNKS wishes to seize so that everyone's claims, including those engaged in demonstrations, can be heard and taken into account," the release said.

The President of the Loyalty Islands province, Jacques Lalié (pro-independence) on Wednesday called for "appeasement" and for "our youths to respect for the values symbolised by our flag and maintain dignity in their engagement without succumbing to provocations".

"Absolute priority must be given to dialogue and the search for intelligence to reach a consensus," Jacques Lalié said.

The French High Commissioner to New Caledonia, Louis Le Franc, told reporters he would call on the military forces if necessary and that reinforcements will be sent Thursday.

What is the next step?

President Macron has sent an invitation by way of a letter, to New Caledonia's politicians, for a meeting in Paris.

"It will be about finding collectively and responsibly, an agreement that would go beyond the sole electoral roll issue while taking into account developments and aspirations of everyone", he wrote.

It could also deal with urgent issues facing New Caledonia, such as the current economic crisis (mainly in the nickel industry sector).

Macron also said he would not convene the French Congress immediately, but would allow some time until he does, probably by the end of June.

The proposed Paris meeting could take place by the end of May and would be held under the supervision of the French Prime minister Gabriel Attal. "I still believe that an agreement is possible", the French Head of State wrote, adding that if this happened, then "a new Constitutional Bill will be tabled by the government".

Macron also strongly condemned, in the same letter, the "inacceptable violence, destruction, intimidation and assaults against persons, property and law enforcement agents" that has taken place in New Caledonia for the past three days.

On Wednesday, reacting to the latest developments and the first fatalities in Nouméa, he also appealed for calm.

French Prime minister Gabriel Attal, speaking before the National Assembly on Tuesday, underlined the opportunity for those talks to resume and called on New Caledonia's parties to "seize the opportunity of this extended hand" to resume dialogue.

"Only dialogue will allow us to appease tensions. Our hand remains extended. We need an inclusive political solution that can satisfy all stakeholders and that's why we are offering New Caledonian leaders to discuss and build together the future of New Caledonia", he told Parliament during question time.

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