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French Pacific island devastated by violence after vote in France

Deadly violence on the French island of New Caledonia erupted for a third day on Wednesday (15), with armed clashes between protesters, militias and police, with buildings and cars set on fire in the capital of the South Pacific archipelago.

At least three people were shot dead during the clashes, considered the worst since the 1980s, and which led authorities to impose a mandatory curfew in the capital Noumea. Public gatherings, carrying weapons and selling alcohol are also banned, and the main airport – usually a busy tourist hub – has been closed to commercial traffic.

The violence is the latest flare-up in years-long political tensions that pit the island's largely pro-independence indigenous Kanak communities – who have long been angered by the Paris government – ​​against French inhabitants who oppose breaking the ties with their homeland.

The French military was mobilized and sent “four additional squads to restore order,” according to French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin.

Located in the South Pacific, with Australia, Fiji and Vanuatu as neighbors, New Caledonia is a semi-autonomous French territory – one of a dozen spread across the Pacific, Caribbean and Indian Ocean.

The protests began on Monday (13), involving mainly young people, in response to a vote 17,000 kilometers away in the French parliament proposing changes to the constitution of New Caledonia that would give more voting rights to French residents who live on the islands. On Tuesday (12), lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in favor of the change.

The move would add thousands of additional voters to New Caledonia's electoral rolls, which have not been updated since the late 1990s. Pro-independence groups say the changes are an attempt by France to consolidate its hold on the archipelago.

“In the last two days we have seen violence on a scale that we have not seen in 30 years in New Caledonia,” Denise Fisher, former Australian consul general in New Caledonia, told CNN . “This marks the end of 30 years of peace in New Caledonia.”

“The Kanak people oppose [à votação na França] not only because it was decided in Paris without them, but also because they feel they want this to be part of a negotiation… which would include another self-determination vote and a number of other things.”

French President Emmanuel Macron appealed for calm, issuing a letter on Wednesday to New Caledonia's political leaders urging them to “unequivocally condemn all this violence” and inviting pro- and anti-independence leaders to meet him “ face to face” in Paris.

Macron will chair a defense and national security council this Wednesday (15), focusing on violence, the presidential palace said.

Macron's administration has pushed for a pivot to the Indo-Pacific, underlining that France is a Pacific power, as China and the United States reinforce their presence in the midst of a battle for influence in that strategically important region. New Caledonia is at the center of this plan.

“The stakes are high for France,” Fisher added. “France has identified for itself an entire Indo-Pacific vision. The legitimacy of France participating in this way, having an influence in this way, is in question when you have scenes like this.”

Violence

Three people – two men and a woman, all indigenous Kanaks – were shot dead in the violent protests and looting, according to Charles Wea, spokesman for Louis Mapou, president of the government of New Caledonia.

Protesters also set fire to buildings and cars in Noumea, defying the mandatory curfew that was extended until Thursday (16).

Dense clouds of black smoke covered the capital on Wednesday morning, a video on social media showed. The images show burned cars, fires in the streets and vandalized and looted stores.

“Some are equipped with hunting rifles with buckshot as ammunition. Others were equipped with larger rifles, firing bullets,” said the French high commissioner in New Caledonia, Louis Le Franc. More than 140 people were arrested, while at least 60 security officers were injured in clashes between local nationalist groups and French authorities, according to Le Franc.

A Noumea resident told Radio New Zealand's affiliate CNN , about panic buying reminiscent of Covid-19. “Lots of fire, violence, but it’s better to stay safe at home. There are a lot of police and army. I want the government to take action for peace,” the person told RNZ, asking to remain anonymous.

Voting

Colonial France took control of New Caledonia in 1853. White settlement followed and the indigenous Kanak people were victims of harsh segregation policies for a long time. Many indigenous inhabitants continue to live with high rates of poverty and high unemployment to this day.

Deadly violence exploded in the 1980s, eventually paving the way for the Noumea Agreement in 1998, a promise by France to give the Kanak community more political autonomy.

Several referendums have been held in recent years – in 2018, 2020 and 2021 – as part of the agreement that offers New Caledonia voters the option to secede from France. Each referendum was rejected, but the process was marred by boycotts by pro-independence groups and Covid-19.

The role of voters has been frozen since the Noumea Agreement, the issue the French parliament sought to address in the vote that triggered this week's violence.

French lawmakers in Paris voted 351-153 in favor of changing the constitution to “unfreeze” the territory’s electoral rolls, granting rights to French residents who have been in New Caledonia for 10 years.

The lists were frozen by the French government to appease pro-independence Kanak nationalists, who believe that new arrivals to the former colony, including from France, dilute popular support for independence.

Both chambers of the French parliament must approve the constitutional change approved by the National Assembly.

On Tuesday, French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said the government would not call a parliament meeting to vote on the motion before talks with Kanak leaders, including the main Kanak independence alliance and the Socialist Front of National Liberation (FLNKS).

“I invite New Caledonia’s political leaders to take advantage of this opportunity and come to Paris for talks in the coming weeks. The important thing is conciliation. Dialogue is important. It is about finding a common, political and global solution”, said Attal in the plenary of the National Assembly.

The FLNKS issued its own statement on Wednesday, condemning the vote in the National Assembly and calling for an end to the violence.

“FLNKS appeals to young people involved in these demonstrations for appeasement and to guarantee the safety of the population and property,” the note said.

Source: CNN Brasil

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