In Riot-Stricken New Caledonia, French President Says He Won’t Rush Through Voting Reforms

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In Riot-Stricken New Caledonia, French President Says He Won’t Rush Through Voting Reforms

After meetings with both Indigenous Kanaks and the pro-Paris camp, Macron laid out a roadmap that he said could lead to another referendum for the territory.

In Riot-Stricken New Caledonia, French President Says He Won’t Rush Through Voting Reforms

People demonstrate as French President Emmanuel Macron’s motorcade drives past in in Noumea, New Caledonia, May 23, 2024.

Credit: Ludovic Marin/Pool Photo via AP

French President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday on a visit to riot-hit New Caledonia that he won’t force through the contested voting reform that sparked the French Pacific territory’s deadly unrest. Macron said he wants local leaders to come up with an alternate agreement for the archipelago’s future.

Speaking after a day of meetings with leaders on both sides of New Caledonia’s bitter divide between Indigenous Kanaks who want independence and pro-Paris leaders who do not, Macron laid out a roadmap that he said could lead to another referendum for the territory.

A 1998 peace accord called for three separate referendums on the question of New Caledonia’s independence. Referendums were held in 2018, 2020, and 2021, all producing “no” votes against independence. However, most Kanaks boycotted the referendum in 2021, due to its timing in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pro-independence camp refused to accept the results and has demanded that another referendum be held. Paris refused to budge, insisting the third and final referendum was binding.

On Thursday, however, Macron said another referendum could be held on a new political deal for the archipelago. He hopes local leaders will reach agreement on such a blueprint in the coming weeks and months – after protesters’ barricades are dismantled, allowing for a state of emergency to be lifted and for peace to return.

“I have pledged that this reform won’t be pushed through with force today in the current context and that we are giving ourselves a few weeks to allow for calm, the resumption of dialogue, with a view to a global agreement,” he said.

The unrest began early last week in response to legislation in the French parliament that Kanaks fear will dilute their influence by allowing some more recent arrivals in the archipelago to vote in local elections.

Both French houses of parliament in Paris have already approved the overhaul. The next step was to have been a special Congress of both houses meeting in Versailles to implement it by amending France’s Constitution. That had been expected by the end of June. But Macron’s comments in the New Caledonian capital, Nouméa, suggested he’s now willing to change tack and buy more time for an alternate deal, perhaps more palatable to pro-independence leaders who fear the electoral change will marginalize Kanak voters.

Macron said he would take stock in one month “at the most.”

His announcements came at the end of a whistle-stop visit aimed at de-escalating the severest violence since the 1980s in the archipelago of 270,000 people, which has been under French control since 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III. New Caledonia has seen decades of tensions over the issue of independence between Kanaks and the descendants of colonists and other settlers. Macron also visited in 2018 and 2023, in calmer times.

Macron repeatedly pushed for the removal of protesters’ barricades and said police sent in to help battle shootings, arson, looting, and other unrest “will stay as long as necessary,” even as security services back in France focus in coming weeks on safeguarding the Paris Olympics.

His roughly 32,000-kilometer (20,000-mile) round-trip from Paris to spend the day in New Caledonia brought the weight of his office to bear on the crisis, which has left six dead and a trail of destruction.

Pro-independence Kanak leaders, who a week earlier declined Macron’s offer of talks by video, joined a meeting the French leader hosted with rival pro-Paris leaders who want New Caledonia to stay part of France. Macron also met separately with both camps.

Macron called for a minute of silence for the six people killed in shootings, including two gendarmes. He then urged local leaders to use their clout to help restore order. He said a state of emergency imposed by Paris for at least 12 days on May 15 to boost police powers could only be lifted if local leaders call for a clearing away of barricades that demonstrators and people trying to protect their neighborhoods have erected in Nouméa and beyond.

“Everyone has a responsibility to really call for the lifting of the barricades, the cessation of all forms of attack, not simply for calm,” he said.

Barricades made up of charred vehicles and other debris have turned parts of Nouméa into no-go zones and made traveling around perilous, including for the sick requiring medical treatment and for families fretting about food and water after shops were pillaged and torched.

French authorities say more than 280 people have been arrested since violence flared May 13, as French lawmakers in Paris debated the contested changes to New Caledonia voter lists.

The unrest continued to simmer as Macron jetted in, despite a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew and more than 1,000 reinforcements for the archipelago’s police and gendarmes, now 3,000 strong.

“I will be very clear here. These forces will remain as long as necessary. Even during the Olympic Games and Paralympics,” which open in Paris on July 26, Macron said.

At Nouméa’s central police station, Macron thanked officers for facing what he described as “an absolutely unprecedented insurrection movement.”

“No one saw it coming with this level of organization and violence,” he said. “You did your duty. And I thank you.”

Fires, looting, and other violence targeting hundreds of businesses, homes, stores, public buildings, and other sites in and around Nouméa have caused destruction estimated in the hundreds of millions of euros. This week, military flights evacuated stranded tourists.

Macron flew to the archipelago under pressure from politicians in France and pro-independence supporters to delay or scrap the overhaul of the voting system. It would enlarge voter numbers in provincial elections for New Caledonia’s legislature and government, adding about 25,000 voters, including people who have been residents of the archipelago for at least 10 years and others born there.

Opponents fear the measure will benefit pro-France politicians in New Caledonia and further marginalize Kanaks, who once suffered from strict segregation policies and widespread discrimination. Supporters say the proposed reform is democratically important for people with roots in New Caledonia who can’t currently vote for local representatives.

Macron in the past has facilitated dialogue between the divided pro- and anti-independence camps.