Two killed in New Caledonia as riots escalate after Paris vote

At least two people have been killed and hundreds injured in the Pacific territory of New Caledonia as riots continue in response to the French parliament giving French residents there more voting rights.

Protests over the issue first erupted into violence on Monday night with people reportedly torching cars, setting buildings alight, and attacking police stations.

The island, located between Australia and Fiji, has been a French territory since the 19th century. This is the worst unrest it has seen since the 1980s.

It prompted France’s President Emmanuel Macron to cancel a trip to chair an emergency defense and national security meeting on Wednesday, his office said.

The president’s office said he had earlier planned to travel to Normandy in north-western France early on Wednesday.

The violence started after lawmakers in Paris voted 351 to 153 to grant French citizens who have lived in New Caledonia for at least 10 years the right to vote in provincial elections. They argued this was democratically fair.

However, the change has angered many locals, who say it marginalizes and reduces the vote of New Caledonia’s indigenous Kanak people.

The capital Nouméa was rocked by violent protests on Monday night, including reports of several exchanges of fire between rioters and civil defense groups.

These prompted French authorities to impose a night-time curfew and ban on public gatherings on Tuesday.

However, France’s High Commission of the Republic in New Caledonia on Wednesday said the “serious disturbances” were continuing, and there had been an attempted prison break-out.

“This needs to stop now. We already have one person dead, but if we don’t stop now, it will be carnage. I fear for New Caledonia, dark hours lie ahead,” said the high commissioner Louis Le Franc earlier on Wednesday.

The French Interior Minister said that hundreds of people, including police officers, were injured in the unrest.

Following the vote, Mr Macron issued a letter to New Caledonian representatives calling for them to condemn the violence and to call for calm.

The main pro-independence party Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) has supported that call, called for protesters to cease their roadblocks.

French media outlets have expressed alarm over the unrest in the French Pacific story, with several reiterating the authorities’ call for calm.

At least 130 people have been arrested so far since the unrest kicked off on Monday, local authorities said.

New Caledonia has a population of about 300,000 people, of which the indigenous Kanak people make up about 40%.

Under the 1998 Nouméa Accord, France agreed to give the territory more political autonomy and to limit voting in provincial and assembly elections to only those who were residents then.

More than 40,000 French citizens have moved to New Caledonia since then.

The accord allowed for three referendums on the country’s future. Independence was rejected in all instances.

The first two showed slim majorities for the remaining part of France. The third, in December 2021, was boycotted by pro-independence parties after the authorities refused to postpone the vote due to the Covid epidemic.

“Tonight, France is more beautiful because New Caledonia has decided to stay part of it,” Mr Macron had said after the most recent vote in 2021.

New Caledonia enjoys a large degree of autonomy but depends heavily on France for matters like defense and education and still receives large subsidies from Paris.

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