New Caledonia riots: What is happening in New Caledonia, the Pacific group of islands with Scotland link, where two people have died?

New Caledonia was named for its resemblance to Scotland

France is set to declare a state of emergency in the French territory of New Caledonia after deadly riots broke out over constitutional reforms proposed by Paris.

At least three people have been killed and three more seriously injured in the protests in the Pacific.

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Where is New Caledonia and why is it named after Scotland?

A view of Noumea in the overseas French territory of New Caledonia, where riots broke out over proposed French electoral reforms.A view of Noumea in the overseas French territory of New Caledonia, where riots broke out over proposed French electoral reforms.
A view of Noumea in the overseas French territory of New Caledonia, where riots broke out over proposed French electoral reforms.

The French territory, which is home to 270,000 people, is an archipelago located in the Pacific, east of Australia.

Not to be confused with another island called New Caledonia – which was a colonisation attempt by Scotland in the late 1600s, known as the Darien scheme – this group of islands was named after being discovered by explorer Captain James Cook, who thought it resembled Scotland.

Why does it belong to France?

New Caledonia became French in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III, Napoleon’s nephew and heir. It became an overseas territory after the Second World War, with French citizenship granted to all Kanaks in 1957.

A peace deal between rival factions was reached in 1988. A decade later, France promised to grant New Caledonia political power and broad autonomy and hold up to three successive referendums.

The three referendums were organised between 2018 to 2021 and a majority of voters chose to remain part of France instead of backing independence. The pro-independence Kanak people rejected the results of the last referendum in 2021, which they boycotted because it was held at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Why has violence broken out there?

There have been decades of tensions between indigenous Kanaks on New Caledonia seeking independence and descendants of colonisers who want to remain part of France.

The unrest began on Monday with a protest over France’s efforts to expand voter lists that would benefit pro-France politicians on New Caledonia and further marginalise the Kanak people, who once suffered from strict segregation policies and widespread discrimination.

The bill would allow residents who have lived in New Caledonia for ten years to cast ballots in provincial elections.

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Early on Wednesday, France’s National Assembly adopted a constitutional revision reforming the electoral body in the territory, with 351 lawmakers voting for and 153 against the Bill.

Pro-independence representatives appealed to supporters for calm and condemned the vote in the National Assembly, France’s most influential house of parliament.

Clashes between police and protesters have continued in and around Noumea despite a curfew and ban on gatherings, with 130 people arrested. Schools have been closed “until further notice” and the main airport, La Tontoura, “remains closed to commercial flights”.

The territory’s top French official, High Commissioner Louis Le Franc, warned more people could be injured if riots continued. “The situation is not serious, it is very serious,” Mr Le Franc said. “We have entered a dangerous spiral, a deadly spiral.”

What is the French government doing?

French president Emmanuel Macron has convened a meeting of top ministers to discuss the spiralling violence and is expected to a declare a state of emergency.

On Tuesday, the French Interior Ministry sent police reinforcements to New Caledonia, which now hosts a French military base.