Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Is it Time for New Caledonia to Break from France?

New Caledonia, a French overseas territory in the Pacific, is experiencing severe unrest. The protests and riots erupted in response to a controversial reform passed by the French Parliament, which allows residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years or more to vote in local provincial elections. This change has sparked outrage among the Indigenous Kanak people, who fear that their political influence will be diluted by the inclusion of more non-Indigenous voters.

The situation escalated quickly, resulting in violent clashes, looting, and arson. As a result, several people have died, and hundreds have been injured. In response to the unrest, France has declared a state of emergency and deployed an additional 1,000 security personnel to the territory, adding to the already stationed 1,800 police and gendarmes. A nighttime curfew and a ban on gatherings have also been imposed to restore order.

The High Commission of New Caledonia, which represents the French state in the territory, said more personnel would be deployed to join those already sent from France.

“The return to calm continues throughout the territory,” the High Commission said in a statement but added that the airport in the capital, Nouméa, would remain closed to commercial flights, with the situation to be reviewed on Thursday, according to an Al Jazeera report.

There are also international dimensions to the unrest. France has accused Azerbaijan of interfering in the situation, citing the presence of Azerbaijani flags alongside Kanak symbols at the protests. France’s Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin, stated that Azerbaijan, along with China and Russia, is interfering in New Caledonia’s internal matters.

“This isn’t a fantasy. It’s a reality,” Darmanin told the France 2 TV channel.

Azerbaijan has denied these allegations, but the accusation highlights broader geopolitical tensions, especially considering France’s support for Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

“We completely reject the baseless accusations,” said Ayhan Hajizadeh, a spokesperson for Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry. “We refute any connection between the leaders of the struggle for freedom in Caledonia and Azerbaijan.”

At the same time, Azerbaijan has been outspoken against what it sees as French colonialism. In July 2023, Baku invited pro-independence participants from the French territories of Martinique, French Guiana, New Caledonia and French Polynesia for a conference titled, “Towards the Complete Elimination of Colonialism”.

The conference resulted in the formation of the Baku Initiative Group whose stated aim is to “support the just struggle of the peoples suffering from the colonial policy of France.”

The Baku Initiative Group released a statement expressing solidarity with the Indigenous Kanak people against the new French reforms. “We stand in solidarity with our Kanak friends and support their fair struggle,” said the statement.

New Caledonia, one of the largest French overseas territories, is located between Australia and Fiji. France occupied the territory in 1853 and populated it with French citizens who displaced the Indigenous Kanak communities.

There have been efforts to resolve the issue and provide the Kanak with their own independent state, but they have yet to achieve this.

The Matignon Agreements in 1988 and the Nouméa Accord in 1998 were significant steps towards granting New Caledonia greater autonomy and addressing Kanak demands for independence. These agreements included provisions for a series of referendums on independence, all of which resulted in a decision to remain part of France, though the 2021 referendum was boycotted by pro-independence groups.

Part of the reason independence remains elusive is because New Caledonia relies heavily on financial support from France. This support includes substantial subsidies, funding for public services, and economic aid, which are crucial for the territory’s economy. Many voters likely feared that independence could lead to economic instability and a decline in living standards.

For now, the situation in New Caledonia remains tense.

While the desire for independence remains strong among a significant portion of the Indigenous Kanaks, practical considerations related to economic stability, governance, and demographic composition have led the majority of the public to opt for remaining part of France in the referendums held so far.

But this must change if the residents want true independence.

Perhaps now is the time for New Caledonia to once and for all break away from France.