Enlargement of electoral roll ignites New Caledonia

Kanaks oppose granting of voting rights to some 25,000 people with origins outside archipelago · Kanak organisations argue amendment will further marginalise Kanaks: “It is a recolonisation”

Kanak protesters against the reform.
Kanak protesters against the reform. Author: FLKNS @ Facebook
Current riots, shootings, fires, and blockades in New Caledonia are the vivid expression of the Kanak people’s discontent with the French government’s well advanced plan to “unfreeze” the archipelago’s electoral roll to enlarge it, as it is being debated in the French National Assembly. That decision, the Kanak parties say, will further marginalise the Kanak people. For supporters of the amendment, it is a matter of democracy.

What does it mean that the census is “frozen”?

Two highly controversial issues are intertwined in New Caledonian politics. One is what status the territory should have after the three referendums held in 2018, 2020 and 2021. And the other is who should have the right to vote. In the provincial elections, a restricted electoral roll is in force: people not born in New Caledonia and, in some cases, people born in the archipelago who are descendants of people born abroad, are not eligible to vote. This favours a certain political balance between Kanaks and non-Kanaks, and between unionists and pro-independence supporters.

Those who are not allowed to vote argue that their exclusion is undemocratic. The French government believes that such a situation has become obsolete—it follows 1998 agreements between France and the independence movement—and wants to “unfreeze” the census, giving the right to vote to all people born in the territory and also to those born abroad who have lived there for 10 years. This would give voting rights to 25,000 people, almost 10% of the archipelago’s population. Most of them have family origins or ties to mainland France.

The foreseeable consequence is that the electoral weight of unionist parties (loyalists, according to local nomenclature) will increase. For Kanak political and social organisations, this will lead to an increased minoritisation of the Kanak people. “It is a recolonisation,” denounce the Kanak parties, who point out that the decolonisation process begun in 1998 is not yet complete.

New Caledonian Congress calls for bill withdrawal

The bill to modify the provincial electoral roll has been rejected by the majority of the members of the semi-autonomous New Caledonian Congress, in which the Kanak pro-independence parties and the smaller Oceanian Awakening (which is not pro-independence, but defends the interests of the Polynesian diaspora on the islands of Wallis and Futuna, another French territory in the Pacific) have a majority. Kanaks and Polynesians have joined forces in the island Congress to pass a resolution calling for the withdrawal of the reform bill.

However, the bill has already been passed by the French Senate and, in the National Assembly, it is a matter of hours or days: macronists, the conservative right and the far right, who have a combined majority, support it. French President Emmanuel Macron has called on pro-independence and unionist leaders to “resume” talks on New Caledonia’s future. The Kanak parties are sticking to their stance: New Caledonia is still a colony, it is on the UN List of Non-Self-Governing Territories, and the only acceptable proposal is decolonisation and full sovereignty.

More police officers to control protests

In response to the riots of the last few hours, the French government’s High Commissioner in New Caledonia, Louis Le Franc, has announced police reinforcements to deal with them. Le Franc demanded that the leaders of the pro-independence organisations “ask the young people who spread terror to stop immediately. Otherwise, given the extreme violence and firearm use, there will be deaths.”

Meanwhile, Le Franc has imposed a nighttime curfew in the capital, Nouméa, banning meetings. He has also banned weapons transport throughout New Caledonia and alcohol sales.

The mayor of Nouméa, Sonia Lagarde, says the territory could tip into “civil war.” During the 1980s, dozens lost their lives in an armed conflict that was halted by the signing of the Matignon Agreement (1988), which paved the way for the Nouméa Accords (1998). Pro-independence leaders consider that the French authorities are responsible for this return to violence, precisely because they have sought to touch such a sensitive pillar of these agreements as the electoral roll.