EXPLAINED: Why France has declared state of emergency in New Caledonia

Three people have been killed in riots since the start of the week

New Caledonia (Nouvelle-Calédonie) is a 300,000-resident island in the South Pacific, and is still part of France

France has declared a state of emergency in the French overseas territory of New Caledonia after three people were killed in violent protests over a recent reform.

President Emmanuel Macron requested that a “decree aimed at declaring a state of emergency in New Caledonia be included on the agenda" of a cabinet meeting yesterday (May 15).

Prime Minister Gabriel Attal confirmed that 1,000 extra security forces personnel (from the elite French police group the GIGN) had been dispatched to the Pacific Island, and 2,600 security force staff are now being mobilised.

Writing on X (Twitter), Mr Attal said: “‘Everything is being done to ensure that Caledonians regain the order and calm to which they are entitled. This is a prerequisite for the continuation of the dialogue that I am calling for.”

So far, dialogue between leaders has not been forthcoming. A video conference with President Macron that had been scheduled for today has been cancelled.

Mr Attal has held “crisis cell” meetings in France in a bid to address and quell the unrest.

What has happened?

Violence erupted on Monday, May 13, in the worst riots seen in the country since the 1980s. Vehicles, tyres, pallets, and buildings (including homes) were burnt out; shops looted; shots fired at law enforcement officers; and more than 300 people injured.

Many of the demonstrators reportedly wore masks and hoods and took over several rounds and roundabouts, setting fires and looting public and private buildings. Police said they responded to more than 1,500 calls overnight, and 200 serious fires.

There was also a prison rebellion at the Camp-Est facility, but this is now under control.

More than 206 people have been arrested since Monday May 13, confirmed the French High Commission of the Republic in New Caledonia on May 14.

What measures are in place now?

Public gatherings have now been banned, a curfew imposed, and the airport closed. There is also a heavy security presence in the streets, and the social media platform TikTok - which is widely used by pro-independent activists - has been temporarily banned in the country.

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has said that France is still working to confirm the “circumstances” that led to the deaths of gendarmerie officers.

And while the airport closure and state of emergency have been described as ways to shore up the damage and help keep islanders supplied with necessary goods, pharmacies and elderly care homes have already started to raise the alarm over a lack of medicines.

What has sparked the unrest? 

French parliament the Assemblée Nationale passed a bill - by 351 votes to 153 - that will allow residents arriving to New Caledonia from mainland France to vote in provincial elections on the island.

Pro-independent forces are unhappy about the bill, saying that it the rule will marginalise local people and hand an unfair advantage to pro-France politicians.

Mr Darmanin has claimed that the CCAT independent group is a “mafia organisation”, and condemned their alleged actions. He has denied that the group is “political”, saying that they “commit pillaging and murder”.

It comes after voting records in the country have not been updated since 1998, as part of the Nouméa Accord of the same year (named after the capital, Nouméa). This means that any residents who have arrived on the island since then cannot vote in provincial polls. 

France has said that this situation is “absurd”, but pro-independent forces fear that allowing more people to vote - especially those arriving from France - will favour pro-France politicians.

New Caledonia has taken part in three referendums on the question of whether to become independent from France, and rejected it every time. However, many of the Indigenous Kanak people in particular are still calling for independence.

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What have local representatives said about the situation?

The pro-independence party leader Daniel Goa has said: “The unrest of the last 24 hours reveals the determination of our young people to no longer let France take control of them." He did tell rioters to “go home,” however.

Former minister Sonia Backes, who supports non-independence, said that the riots were “anti-White”. She said that her father, who is in his 70s and whose house was burned down, “was not attacked because he was my father, he was at least attacked because he was White”.

New Caledonia (Nouvelle-Calédonie) is a 300,000-resident island in the South Pacific, located between Australia and Fiji. In 1998, the Nouméa Accord saw France promise to gradually devolve power to the island, although it is not independent.

The current situation is still ongoing, with politicians in France working to open dialogue with opponents, and more security forces being deployed on the ground.