New Caledonia in turmoil: Kanak majority fights to protect their status amid controversial reforms

In the heart of the South Pacific, New Caledonia has been marred by recent waves of unrest, marked by clashes between civilians and law enforcement. The clashes were fueled by deep-seated political tensions and a recent reform bill introduced by the French government, which would enable thousands more French residents who have lived in New Caledonia for at least 10 years to vote.

“Over the last 48 hours, things have been a little calmer, except that we are witnessing a provocation by the police, a terrorization of the population,” said a member of the South Province and the Congress of New Caledonia, providing insights into the ongoing unrest in the region.

In an exclusive interview, Marie-Line Sakilia of the FLNKS (Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front) told Anadolu that reports abound of police provocation and intimidation tactics, with grenades and tear gas deployed against unarmed civilians in Noumea and surrounding areas.

Sakilia described the initial protests as "a reaction" to the reform, which was perceived as a "threat" to the Kanak people's status in their homeland.

Paris claims the measure is essential for enhancing democracy, noting that nearly 25% of the population identifies themselves as European, predominantly French. On the other hand, Kanak leaders, are calling for the reform to be repealed, expressing concerns that it would weaken their voting power and hinder the chances of a successful future independence referendum.

She also criticized the French government's handling of the situation, particularly the decision to push the reform through the National Assembly.

"This reform will make us a minority in New Caledonia," she stated, highlighting the historical and cultural significance of the Kanak people's struggle for autonomy.

In Noumea, videos and testimonies claim police are intervening despite peaceful youth, Sakilia said condemning the recent police actions during protests in the capital, highlighting the severity of the situation and outlining the group's demands from the French government.

The general population continues with their daily activities like shopping and seeking medical attention, despite facing challenges in accessing healthcare due to a shortage of doctors, she added.

“There were more than 153 establishments burned, that is to say, all activities combined, whether station, business, school, educational establishment,” she said.

“This is significant damage in the urban area, it concerns four municipalities: Noumea, Dumbea, Paita, and Mont Dore, where we still have more than 50% of the population living,” she added.

Sakilia also raised questions about the origins of the violence, particularly the burning of large businesses, which she suggested were unlikely to be the work of unarmed young protesters.

"I ask myself a lot of questions about the way, the turn in which we find ourselves today," Sakilia said.

Sakilia stressed the need to restore order in a way that builds trust among both separatists and loyalists.

"It's about giving confidence to both camps, whether, and generally speaking, the population, that is to say the separatists and the loyalists," she said.

The protesters are engaging in passive demonstrations, yet the police response is perceived as “disproportionate,” as they confront unarmed young people peacefully occupying roadblocks, she pointed out.

“They are shooting at them, and more and more weapons, heavy weapons are circulating, with the militia,” Sakilia emphasized.

She further elaborated on the nature of the injuries caused by the police, including the use of "flash ball shots" and "de-encirclement grenades," leading to a significant number of wounded protesters.

"We have several injured with this type of weapon: several of our young people who were injured. I don't know the number of wounded, but we must be nearby...I think we must be around 100 injured," Sakilia noted.

Emphasizing that there are concerns regarding the accuracy of reported casualties in the ongoing confrontations, she said: “I have doubts that after eleven days of confrontation, we will be limited to six deaths, knowing that six deaths were only on Wednesday.”

She stressed that “when the first violence occurred in the capital, and it was the police who shot at the demonstrators,” without warning.

When asked what must be done, she said authorities are urged to ensure that their forces uphold order, allowing the population to access necessary medical care, especially for those with serious illnesses, the elderly, and children.

Adding that efforts should be made to restore access to food, considering the destruction of numerous businesses.

Macron's visit will facilitate "dialogue" and create commitments toward resolving the crisis with significant steps from the French government, according to her.

She noted that this includes addressing the "state of emergency," setting goals for the immediate future, and planning the territory's long-term "resilience" and "recovery."

Lastly, Sakilia emphasized the need for "resumed discussions and measures" to rebuild trust and normalcy.

"We have our leaders who are meeting with the president, who will wait for measures and commit to the coming days ... to resume both discussions and try to resume a somewhat normal life in New Caledonia," she concluded.

Sakilia reflected that the FLNKS's demands for accountability, proper handling of the crisis, and the establishment of a constructive dialogue to address both immediate needs and long-term solutions for New Caledonia.

Clashes in New Caledonia

New Caledonia experienced violent clashes last week between French police and those opposing constitutional reform that would grant voting rights to more than 25,000 French residents on the island, who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years.

The ongoing fighting has resulted in six deaths and has led to the declaration of a state of emergency.

The Kanak population makes up about 40% of its 300,000 residents. Despite three referendums in 2018, 2020, and 2021, independence supporters have not reached the 50% threshold.

When the new law comes into force, it is expected that the Kanak population's proportion in the electorate will decrease and they will not be able to secure the necessary votes for independence in future referendums.

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