New Caledonia: three people dead as protests continue over voting change

New Caledonia: three people dead as protests continue over voting change

Three people have been killed in unrest in New Caledonia, as rioting continued and shops and schools remained shut on Wednesday after France’s national assembly approved changes to voting rules in the Pacific island.

The three dead were young Indigenous Kanak, said a spokesperson for New Caledonia’s president, Louis Mapou, adding that the information was provided by police in the French territory.

Rioting broke out this week before politicians in Paris voted on a bill to allow French residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years to vote in provincial elections – a move some local leaders fear will dilute the Kanak vote.

French officials said one person had been found shot dead in an industrial zone. The high commissioner, Louis Le Franc, said the shot did not come from police but “from someone who probably was defending himself”.

Protests against the changes turned violent on Monday night, with shots fired at security forces, vehicles torched and shops looted in the worst unrest the French overseas territory has seen since the 1980s.

In response, authorities deployed a heavy security contingent, imposed a curfew, banned public gatherings and closed the main airport. That curfew has been extended to Thursday.

“More than 130 arrests have been made and several dozen rioters have been taken into custody and will be brought before the courts,” the French high commission said on Wednesday morning.

Describing the “serious public disturbances” as ongoing, the high commission decried widespread looting and torching of businesses and public property, including schools.

On Tuesday, French MPs voted in favour of a constitutional bill aimed at enlarging the electorate of New Caledonia. Photograph: Geoffroy van der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images

It added that classes would be postponed until further notice and that the main airport was closed to commercial flights.

The unrest flared as lawmakers in France debated a bill that would expand voter eligibility in local elections to include French nationals who have lived on the island for more than 10 years, a change critics fear could marginalise Indigenous people.

After lengthy and tense debates, the National Assembly in Paris voted for the change shortly after midnight, by 351 votes to 153.

Afterwards, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, appealed for calm on all sides.

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In a letter to New Caledonian representatives, he urged them to “unambiguously condemn all this violence” and “call for calm” as discussions over the territory’s future resume.

Macron has been seeking to reassert his country’s importance in the Pacific region, where China and the US are vying for influence but France has a strategic footprint through territories that include New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

Lying between Australia and Fiji, New Caledonia is one of several French territories spanning the globe from the Caribbean and Indian Ocean to the Pacific that remain part of France in the post-colonial era.

In the Nouméa accord of 1998, France vowed to gradually give more political power to the Pacific island territory of nearly 300,000 people.

Under the agreement, New Caledonia has held three referendums over its ties with France, all rejecting independence. But independence retains support, particularly among the Indigenous Kanak people.

The Nouméa accord has also meant that New Caledonia’s voter lists have not been updated since 1998 – meaning that island residents who arrived from mainland France or elsewhere in the past 25 years do not have the right to take part in provincial polls.

The French government has branded the exclusion of one out of five people from voting as “absurd”, while separatists fear that expanding voter lists would benefit pro-France politicians and reduce the weight of the Kanaks.

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