Emmanuel Macron tries to ease New Caledonia crisis after deadly unrest

French president promises not to immediately force through electoral reform that sparked riots in Pacific territory

French president Emmanuel Macron has promised not to immediately force through a controversial electoral reform in New Caledonia after an 18-hour visit to the Pacific archipelago aimed at easing a political crisis that sparked deadly rioting.

The territory, which is strategically important to the French military and is also home to vast nickel reserves, has been riven with unrest since mid-May when Mr Macron’s government pushed ahead with a plan to change the constitution to expand the voting franchise for local elections.

“I have pledged that this reform won’t be pushed through with force now in the current context,” Mr Macron said at a press conference held around midnight in the New Caledonian capital Nouméa after meetings with local politicians, activist groups, and local executives.

“We are giving ourselves a few weeks to allow for calm, the resumption of dialogue, with a view to a comprehensive agreement,” the president added, referring to the overall institutional future of the archipelago, not just the question of the electorate.


Some of New Caledonia’s indigenous Kanak population oppose the plan because it would dilute their political influence compared with the non-indigenous population that began to arrive during the colonial period, while pro-independence groups see it as a threat to their aim of breaking free from France.

Mr Macron skirted the question of whether he would delay or cancel plans to hold a congress in late June to finalise the constitutional change introducing the electoral reform.

Mr Macron is betting that his unexpected visit to New Caledonia, which lies 1,500km east of Australia and has a population of 270,000, will help bring together supporters and opponents of independence after his government declared a state of emergency to quell rioting and looting.

Although Mr Macron departed without resolving the crisis, he did soften his position slightly by promising to “review the situation” in one month, giving time to try to achieve an agreement among local political groups. Three high-level French civil servants familiar with the New Caledonia issue are staying behind to try to hammer out a deal.

A tentative calm has been restored in the streets of Nouméa amid a massive police and army deployment, but its airport and many businesses remain closed. Six people, including two police officers, have died in the unrest and economic damage inflicted that insurers have estimated at €1 billion. The nickel mines have been damaged and are at a standstill, pushing up global nickel prices.

Mr Macron criticised what he called “an unprecedented insurrectional movement” with a “high level of organisation and violence”. He told pro-independence groups there would be “no going back” on three earlier referendums in the territory that all resulted in votes against independence.

The unrest began when French lawmakers voted to expand the right to vote in New Caledonian provincial elections to all citizens who have lived there for more than a decade. Mr Macron had decided to press ahead with the reform despite not achieving consensus with New Caledonian factions.

If finalised, the constitutional amendment would override the Nouméa Accord of 1998, which brought political stability to New Caledonia in part by restricting the voting franchise to Kanaks, who make up around 40 per cent of the population, and to citizens who lived in the territory before the agreement.

Mr Macron said the comprehensive agreement should cover the issue of voting rights, local government structure, citizenship rights, and the future of the crisis-hit nickel mines. He also held out the possibility of a fourth referendum: “My hope is to put such an accord to a vote for New Caledonians,” he said.

Roch Wamytan, a senior leader of the pro-independence Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front, called for Mr Macron to withdraw the proposed constitutional revision. “It is this text that the president absolutely must remove so that the horizon can clear,” Mr Wamytan told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024