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What is happening with the riots in the French colony of New Caledonia?

New Caledonia lies between Australia and Fiji and is one of France’s overseas territories with a significant degree of autonomy. French-speaking territories across the world have various degrees of independence from the central French government in Paris.

These constitutional differences can be grouped into:

DROM (Les départements et régions d'outre-mer), oversea regions and departments, which are large, populated areas that follow the very same rules as the mainland French departments. The laws are the exact same. France has five DROM: Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guyane (French Guiana), La Réunion and Mayotte.

TOM (Territoires d’Outre-Mer), oversea territories, are the uninhabited islands that make up the French Southern and Antarctic Lands. Also, the Clipperton Islands, a coral atoll 1,000 kilometers off Mexico in the Pacific, is the center of a huge Exclusive Economic Zone administered by France's overseas territories' ministry. It holds the status of an overseas state private property (propriété domaniale de l'État) owned by France. The only visitors are researchers working in scientific stations.

COM (Collectivité d'Outre-Mer), oversea community, which are part of France, but laws are often merged with local traditions (councils of elders, trade agreements with neighboring countries, larger fiscal autonomy, own passports, currencies). France has the following territories as COMs: New Caledonia, French Polynesia (which includes Tahiti), Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon (small island in south-east Canada), Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthelemy, and Wallis-et-Futuna.

In total, all of France’s dominion’s outside Europe are home to 2.7 million people, around four percent of the French population.

New Caledonia was explored by British explorer James Cook in 1774, and he named it "New Caledonia", as the northeast of the island reminded him of Scotland. Then, in 1853, under Emperor Napoleon III, France took over New Caledonia with a few settlers, and made it a penal colony, to which Paris sent more than 22,000 criminals and political prisoners (communists arrested after the failed Paris Commune of 1871) in the late 19th century.

The local population, who sometimes practiced cannibalism, was displaced into indigenous reserves, so the French imported semi-slave labor from neighboring islands. The French exploited the nickel and forestry, while the indigenous Kanak people were excluded from the economic activities.

The Kanak population declined from around 60,000 in 1878 to 27,100 in 1921. This exclusion led to several guerrilla wars that killed hundreds of Frenchman and thousands of Kanaks until the mid of the 20th century. In the 70s and 80s, a number of violent events resulted in mortal clashes after the Kanaks took policemen as hostages. Then, an agreement was signed in 1998 in the capital of the island, Nouméa, to give more autonomy to the local government and set up dates to organize a referendum to decide whether New Caledonia should be an independent country.

New Caledonia has a population of about 300,000 people, of whom the indigenous Kanak people make up about 40%, or 112,000 people. Voter list eligibility was the subject of a long dispute, but finally it was decided that people of Kanak origin would get full voting rights, whereas people with other origins who had not been longtime residents of the territory could not vote. With these special electoral rules, two referendums were held in 2018 and 2020, where around 55% of the voters decided to remain part of France.

Paris continues to control New Caledonia’s military, immigration, foreign policy, economy and elections.

And with those powers, the National Assembly of France drafted a law this month that would give the right to vote to French citizens that have been residents in New Caledonia for more than 10 years. As a result, around 13,400 people that were not born in New Caledonia and come from France will be able to vote in referendums and local matters.

Violence erupted harshly last week; the local government declared a state of emergency following riots that left two policemen and three Kanaks killed, many shops plundered, commercial flights being suspended, and social media shot-down.

Meanwhile, the countries that compose the Melanesian Spearhead regional group (Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji, the Solomon Islands), and the main pro-independence party, the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), accused France of escalating the situation: “These events could have been avoided if the French government had listened and not proceeded to press forward with the Constitutional Bill aimed at... changing the distribution of seats in Congress."

Indeed, the National Assembly passed the voting rights bill on Wednesday by 351 votes to 153, with left-wing MPs opposing it. The far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally) and rightwing Les Républicains voted largely in favor, as did the overwhelming majority of President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance coalition.

Because the last two referendums have rejected independence, the government of Macron considers that many of the points in the Nouméa Accords of 1998 have expired, and the highest French administrative court, the Council of State, has reaffirmed the principles of universal suffrage, without which the next provincial elections could be canceled.

Socio-economic inequalities between Europeans and Kanaks are evident: 71% of Kanaks live below the line of poverty, whereas this is almost non-existent for Europeans. Also, 38% of Kanaks are completely unemployed, compared to 5% of Europeans. Finally, around 45% of Kanak people have obtained only a junior high school certificate as their highest educational qualification, and for Europeans in New Caledonia it is just 10%.


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