New Caledonia riots rage on after Paris approves voting change

By Thomson Reuters May 14, 2024 | 10:13 PM

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Gunshots could be heard and schools remained shut in New Caledonia’s capital Noumea on Wednesday morning after a night of rioting despite a curfew, as France’s National Assembly approved changes to voting rules in the Pacific island.

Lawmakers in Paris voted 351 to 153 in favour of the bill to allow French residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years to vote in provincial elections – a move local leaders fear will dilute the indigenous Kanak vote.

The French government says the change is needed so elections are democratic in the country’s territory.

On Wednesday morning, Lilou Garrido Navarro Kherachi, 19, drove around protestor blockades in Noumea and saw burning cars and buildings, including a ruined veterinary clinic where the neighbors had evacuated the animals before the fire spread.

Police were outnumbered by protestors, she told Reuters.

“The real problem is the youngsters who trash, burn and loot. We didn’t see any police deployed on site,” she said.

French retailer Decathlon said in a statement its New Caledonia store had been vandalised, looted and burnt overnight, after 10 years of trading.

The New Caledonia government in a statement schools would stay closed, after some were damaged.

French President Emmanuel Macron condemned the violence and called for calm in a letter addressed to officials in New Caledonia that was published on the Facebook account of one lawmaker. The major pro-independence political group, FLNKS, also issued a statement on Wednesday calling for calm and condemned the violence.

“Residents are terrorised, armed and organising themselves to make the rounds tonight and protect their homes,” Garrido Navarro Kherachi said, adding gunfire could be heard in her neighbourhood.

Most residents were staying indoors. With stores closed breastfeeding mothers were organising to share milk with mothers who have none left to feed their babies, she said.

Garrido Navarro Kherachi moved to New Caledonia when she was eight years old, and has never been back to France. Although eligible to vote under the new rules, she says she won’t “out of respect for the Kanak people”.

“That would give me the right to vote but I don’t feel I know enough about the history of Caledonia and the struggle of the Kanak people to allow me to vote,” she said.

She said she is fearful for the future of the island nation, which she called “a wonderful country where all ethnic groups live together”.

“I don’t know if the situation will improve.”

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham in Sydney and Camille Raynaud in Paris; Editing by Sonali Paul)