New Caledonia: Death Toll Rises to Eight, Curfew Extended

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Protests continue in Noumea, New Caledonia, Wednesday May 15, 2024. (Nicolas Job/AP)

Nouméa, New Caledonia (AFP)— The death toll in New Caledonia has risen to eight following the death of a 26-year-old Kanak man who succumbed to his injuries on Friday. This intensifies the crisis in the French Pacific territory, prompting authorities to extend the curfew by another week on Saturday, ahead of high-security European elections.

The deceased was one of two individuals shot by mobile gendarmes on Monday in the sector of Col de la Pirogue, a critical juncture on the route from Nouméa to the international airport, which had been blockaded by pro-independence activists protesting against a constitutional reform they claim marginalizes the Kanak population. The area has been a flashpoint in the ongoing unrest.

Nouméa prosecutor Yves Dupas stated that the off-duty gendarmes fired their weapons in response to gunfire directed at them. Their rental car, which had a bullet hole, was struck by a pick-up truck carrying three men, including the two who were shot. Medical examinations revealed that the victim suffered multiple skull fractures and severe brain injuries caused by a metallic projectile. An autopsy has been ordered, and investigations are ongoing. The prosecutor announced an investigation for “attempted murder of a public official.”

Contradicting the prosecutor’s account, the pro-independence Cellule de coordination des actions de terrain (CCAT) claimed that loyalist “militias” fired on young Kanaks during the road clearing by security forces. This version was dismissed by the prosecutor, citing a lack of evidence.

Since mid-May, New Caledonia has been embroiled in its most severe crisis since the 1980s. The unrest stems from the French National Assembly’s adoption of a constitutional reform aimed at updating the electoral roll, which has sparked violent protests. The peak of the violence occurred in mid-May, resulting in the declaration of a state of emergency.

The political landscape in New Caledonia has long been marked by tensions between the indigenous Kanak population and descendants of European settlers. This latest crisis underscores the deep-seated divisions over issues of sovereignty and self-determination. The reform, viewed by many Kanaks as an attempt to dilute their influence, has reignited these historical grievances.

Following the latest death, the president of New Caledonia’s government, Louis Mapou, paid tribute to the victims and urged for a “new chapter” in the archipelago’s history. He noted that the “path to peace and de-escalation” agreed upon with President Emmanuel Macron during his May 23 visit had not yet restored normalcy. Mapou called on Macron and Parliament to recognize that the constitutional reform is “against the tide of history” in New Caledonia.

Security Measures and Election Preparations

The high-commissioner of the Republic extended the curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. until June 17, maintaining restrictions on gatherings, weapons sales, and alcohol distribution. This decision comes as schools in Nouméa and surrounding areas remain closed since May 13 due to the violent events. The gradual reopening of schools is planned starting June 17.

The high-commissioner reported that “212 police officers and gendarmes have been injured” and “1,044 arrests have been made” since the beginning of the unrest. Additionally, “1,500 wrecks” have been cleared, and fuel restrictions in Nouméa and surrounding areas have been lifted, indicating an effort to restore some semblance of normalcy.

In this context, New Caledonia is set to be one of the first French territories to vote in the European elections, starting at 7 a.m. Sunday (10 p.m. Saturday in Paris), with adjusted hours to accommodate the curfew. The ongoing unrest raises concerns about voter turnout for an election that historically sees low engagement. In 2019, abstention rates reached 80%, with only 40,000 votes cast, placing the National Rally party in the lead.

For the elections, the usual 56 polling stations in Nouméa have been consolidated into six locations for security and logistical reasons. Alan Boufenèche, the director of civic, educational, and sports life in Nouméa, explained, “We had to regroup polling stations in strategic locations for two reasons: security and logistical challenges.” He noted that “more than a third of Nouméa’s vehicle fleet has burned,” complicating the transportation of election materials.

The crisis in New Caledonia is not only a local issue but also has broader implications for French domestic politics and international relations. President Emmanuel Macron’s administration has been keen to address the situation delicately, balancing between the calls for independence by the Kanak population and the interests of the loyalist settlers.

Macron’s visit to New Caledonia aimed to calm the situation, and he offered a delay for the pro-independence and loyalist factions to negotiate a comprehensive agreement on New Caledonia’s future following three self-determination referendums. However, the continued violence and unrest suggest that a resolution remains elusive.

The international community is also watching closely, given New Caledonia’s strategic location in the Pacific and its rich natural resources, including nickel. The outcome of the current crisis could have significant repercussions for the region’s geopolitical stability.

As New Caledonia navigates this turbulent period, the path to lasting peace and stability will require addressing the underlying issues of inequality, representation, and historical grievances. The upcoming European elections, despite being overshadowed by the crisis, provide an opportunity for the voices of the territory’s residents to be heard, albeit under challenges.

Written by Imane Moumen

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