Curfew imposed, gatherings banned in New Caledonia after violent unrest linked to voting reforms

Authorities in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia announced a two-day curfew and banned gatherings on Tuesday after violent unrest erupted in the capital of Noumea and other areas. The French Interior Ministry announced that police reinforcements were being sent to the island. The territory’s top official, High Commissioner Louis Le Franc, said 46 security forces had been injured in the unrest and 48 people had been arrested. No serious civilian injuries were reported, he said in a statement. Le Franc said Noumea was impacted by “high intensity” disturbances overnight Monday to Tuesday that damaged numerous stores and video surveillance equipment. Schools were closed on Tuesday, and most business and shops, some damaged in the unrest, remained shut. French media reported that the unrest started with protests against voting reforms that French lawmakers are debating in Paris which would increase the number of people who could cast ballots in New Caledonia. New Caledonia, colonized by Napoleon’s nephew in the 19th century, is a vast archipelago of about 270,000 people east of Australia that is 10 time zones ahead of Paris and hosts a French military base. Tensions in the archipelago between indigenous Kanaks seeking independence and descendants of European colonizers who want to remain part of France have been simmering for decades. Le Franc said in an interview with French broadcaster BFM that clashes between police forces and pro-independence protesters and opponents of the constitutional reform occurred overnight in Mont-Dore, a town in the southeast near Nouméa. Shots were fired at gendarmes “from high caliber weapons and hunting rifles,” he said. Hundreds of cars were set on fire and dozens of businesses and homes could be seen in flames on videos posted on social media. “The situation remains extremely tense,” Le Franc said. He said internal security troops and civil security forces have been mobilized to intervene. Gatherings on public roads and in public places have been prohibited in the municipalities of Nouméa, Dumbéa, Mont-Dore and Païta, and all travel on public roads and in public places there was banned from Tuesday afternoon until Wednesday morning, except for health and public emergencies. Le Franc called for calm and “strict compliance with the measures taken to ensure the safety of the population.” The archipelago’s population includes indigenous Kanaks, who once suffered from strict segregation policies and widespread discrimination, and descendants of European colonizers. A peace deal between rival factions was reached in 1988. A decade later, France promised in the Noumea Agreement to grant New Caledonia broad autonomy and hold up to three successive referendums. The three referendums were organized between 2018 to 2021 and a majority of voters chose to remain part of France instead of backing independence. New Caledonia became French in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III — Napoleon’s nephew and heir — and was used for decades as a prison colony. It became an overseas territory after World War II, with French citizenship granted to all Kanaks in 1957.