New Caledonia curfew imposed after rioting over French constitutional change

French plans to enlarge New Caledonia’s electoral roll could further marginalize the territory’s independence movement.
Stephen Wright and Stefan Armbruster
New Caledonia curfew imposed after rioting over French constitutional change Protesters take part in a gathering organised by the pro-independence coalition of the Cellule de Coordination de Terrain (CCAT) outside the Noumea courthouse in support of 14 activists on trial for obstructing traffic and damaging property, on May 13, 2024.
Theo Rouby/AFP

French authorities imposed a curfew on New Caledonia’s capital Noumea and banned public gatherings after supporters of the Pacific island’s independence movement blocked roads, set fire to buildings and clashed with security forces.

Tensions in New Caledonia have been inflamed by the French government’s plans to give the vote to tens of thousands of French immigrants to the Melanesian island chain. The enfranchisement would create a significant obstacle to the autonomy aspirations of the indigenous Kanak people. 

“Very intense public order disturbances took place last night in Noumea and in neighboring towns, and are still ongoing at this time,” France’s high commissioner to New Caledonia, Louis Le Franc, said in a statement Tuesday.

Some 36 people were arrested and numerous police were injured, the statement said.

France’s control of New Caledonia and its surrounding islands gives the European nation a security and diplomatic role in the Pacific at a time when the U.S., Australia and other Western countries are pushing back against China’s inroads in the region. 

Kanaks make up about 40% of New Caledonia’s 270,000 people but are marginalized in their own land–they have lower incomes and poorer health than Europeans who make up a third of the population and predominate positions of power in the territory.

Video and photos posted online showed buildings set ablaze, burned-out vehicles at luxury car dealerships and security forces using tear gas to confront groups of protesters waving Kanaky flags and throwing petrol bombs at city intersections in the worst rioting in decades. 

Burnt cars at a Renault showroom in Noumea, New Caledonia on the morning of May 14, 2024, after overnight riots. [Theo Rouby/AFP]

A dusk-to-dawn curfew will be imposed on Tuesday and can be renewed as long as necessary, the high commissioner’s statement said. Public gatherings in greater Noumea are banned and the sale of alcohol and carrying or transport of weapons is prohibited throughout New Caledonia.

The violence erupted as the lower house of France’s parliament debated a constitutional amendment to “unfreeze” the electoral roll, which would enfranchise relative newcomers to New Caledonia. It is scheduled to vote on the measure on Tuesday afternoon in Paris. France’s Senate approved the amendment in April. 

New Caledonia’s Congress, where pro-independence groups have a majority, on Monday passed a resolution that called for France to withdraw the amendment.

It said political consensus has “historically served as a bulwark against intercommunity tensions and violence” in New Caledonia.

“Any unilateral decision taken without prior consultation of New Caledonian political leaders could compromise the stability of New Caledonia,” the resolution said.

Makeshift barricades block a road in New Caledonia’s capital Noumea on May 14, 2024. Independence supporters are protesting a vote in France’s parliament to enlarge the French territory’s voting roll. [Theo Rouby/AFP]

France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin told his country’s legislature that some 42,000 people – about one in five possible voters in New Caledonia – are denied the right to vote under the 1998 Noumea Accord between France and the independence movement that froze the electoral roll.

“Democracy means voting,” he said. 

New Caledonia’s pro-independence government–the first in its history– could lose power in elections due in December if the electoral roll is enlarged. 

New Caledonia voted by modest majorities to remain part of France in referendums held in 2018 and 2020 under a U.N.-mandated decolonization process. Three votes were part of the Noumea Accord to increase Kanaks’ political power following deadly violence in the 1980s.

A contentious final referendum in 2022 was overwhelmingly in favor of continuing with the status quo. However supporters of independence have rejected its legitimacy due to very low turnout – it was boycotted by the independence movement—and because it was held during a serious phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, which restricted campaigning.

Representatives of the FLNKS (Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialist) independence movement did not respond to interview requests. 

“When there’s no hope in front of us, we will fight, we will struggle. We’ll make sure you understand what we are talking about,” Patricia Goa, a New Caledonian politician, said in an interview last month with Australian public broadcaster ABC. 

“Things can go wrong and our past shows that,” she said.

Confrontations between protestors and security forces are continuing in Noumea.

Darmanin has ordered reinforcements be sent to New Caledonia including hundreds of police, urban violence special forces and elite tactical units.


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