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What is happening in New Caledonia, a French territory?

On June 10, Plum Pass (Plum Pass) in New Caledonia, France's Pacific Territory, is an important transportation route through Monte-Dore.

Burnt cars are seen on the Plum Pass, a road that passes through Monte d’Or, New Caledonia, France’s Pacific territory, on June 10 An important transportation route in Monte-Dore. Image source: AFP

Story so far: On June 3, the Socialist National Liberation Front of Kanak (Frente Kanak) in the French territory of New Caledonia in the South Pacific called on French President Macron to abandon his plan to revise electoral reforms.

What happened?

Massive protests and riots erupt in New Caledonia Responding to the French Parliament’s decision to amend the electoral roll. The new amendments will pave the way for the integration of citizens who were born or have lived in the region for at least 10 years. The territory’s indigenous community, the Kanaks, opposed the move, claiming it marginalized them by undermining their electoral rights. Kanaks make up 43% of the population of 145,000, while Europeans (loyal to France), Wallis and Futunians make up 37%. New voting amendments would give loyalists a majority who are undermining the decolonization future of the Kanak people. It also meant a change in the internal political environment of the French settlers.

What is the history of the islands?

The original inhabitants of New Caledonia were the Kanak people. In 1853, France took control of the territory and maintained reserved rule over the Kanak people. After World War II, colonial laws were abolished and the Kanaks were granted French citizenship. In the 1960s, increased immigration from France made the Kanaks a minority in New Caledonia. Due to the deteriorating socioeconomic status of the Kanak people and their lack of economic and political participation, the independence movement arose with the emergence of the Kanak Democratic Front in 1984. Tensions between the two groups intensified sharply, culminating in the signing of the Kanak Democratic Front. This resulted in the transfer of power from Paris to local authorities and the holding of three referendums to decide the territory’s independence.

Independence referendums held in 2018 and 2020 favored France and opposed New Caledonia’s independence. Kanaks asked for the third and final referendum in 2021 to be postponed due to COVID-19, but France ignored the request. Lower turnout ensured a 96% result against an independent state. This angered the Kanaks, who subsequently opposed negotiations with the French government.

Why did the Kanak people want independence?

After the Second World War, after the granting of French citizenship and the conversion of French colonies into overseas territories, immigration patterns in New Caledonia increasingly reflected what Kanaks call “settler colonialism”.

Under this new model, social inequalities widen, leading to the exploitation of Aboriginal communities. This has been observed in the steel and nickel mining sectors, where Aboriginal people remain the workforce while non-Aboriginal people reap the economic and political benefits. Despite France’s commitment to reversing social inequality and increasing Kanak political participation, the 2019 census showed a Kanak poverty rate of 32.5%, while only 9% of non-Kanak people experience poverty. The stagnation of the scope of economic progress and a vote by the French parliament to change the electoral makeup were seen as moves to end Kanak independence.

What is the final game for France?

First, achieve tactical peace. More violence means greater threats to French citizens abroad and the reputation of Macron’s party is at risk.

Secondly, integration is the key to France’s Indo-Pacific strategy. France considers itself an Indo-Pacific power through its overseas territories, which make it the second largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Furthermore, the large number of French citizens is a testament to French governance. These islands represent France’s strategic position in the Indo-Pacific region, especially against China. Therefore, in order to consolidate its presence in these territories, integration became necessary, but it was difficult due to the Kanak demands for independence.

The author is a researcher at NIAS, Bangalore.

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