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20 May, 2024 02:03

France launches ‘major operation’ to quash unrest in overseas territory

The authorities have vowed to re-establish order in New Caledonia “whatever the cost”
France launches ‘major operation’ to quash unrest in overseas territory

France has launched a “major operation” in its Pacific territory of New Caledonia to reclaim a key road linking the region's main airport to its capital, Noumea, amid widespread rioting.

The archipelago – located to the east of Australia – has been swept by unrest, sparked by election reform pushed by Paris on its former colony, which lies some 17,000 kilometres from France. 

The riots erupted on May 13 and have so far claimed the lives of six people. Indigenous Kanak activists are protesting against constitutional reform that would allow people who arrived in New Caledonia after 1998 to vote in local elections. The activists believe that the change would decrease the power of the indigenous population in favor of French settlers.

The peaceful protests rapidly descended into violence and looting, which local officials have compared to a pro-independence armed uprising in the 1980s.

According to the French authorities, more than 600 gendarmes, including a hundred officers from an elite counterterrorism unit, were dispatched to regain control of the 60-kilometer-long Route Territoriale 1 and clear the roadblocks put up by protesters.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmain wrote on X (formerly Twitter) on Sunday that the operation had been “a success,” with over 76 barricades dismantled and 200 people arrested. The highway, however, remains closed pending the removal of debris, which could take several days.

 “Republican order will be re-established whatever the cost,” the French high commissioner in New Caledonia, Louis Le Franc, said in a televised address on Sunday. He warned that the rioters “will be risking the worst” if they do not back down.

Colonized in the 19th century, New Caledonia is home to 270,000 people, with the Kanaks making up around 40%. Although it remains largely under French control – one of few such territories in the post-colonial era – the archipelago was granted some autonomy in 1998 when voting rights were restricted to locals living there prior to that year.

The presidents of four other French overseas territories – La Reunion in the Indian Ocean, Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, and French Guiana in South America – urged the French government on Sunday to scrap the reform, arguing that “only a political response can halt the rising violence and prevent a civil war.”

New Caledonia rejected independence from France in referendums held in 2018, 2020 and 2021. The last vote was marred by low attendance and calls for a boycott from Kanak activists, who wanted the plebiscite to be postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.