Wednesday, May 22

Curfew Imposed in New Caledonia Following Protests Over Constitutional Change

The authorities in New Caledonia, a semiautonomous French territory in the South Pacific, put a curfew in place on Tuesday and banned all public gatherings after protests over a proposed constitutional change turned violent overnight.

France’s High Commission of the Republic in New Caledonia said on Tuesday that a “massive mobilization” of security and defense forces had been sent to quell the protests. In addition, a curfew was imposed in the capital, Noumea, for Tuesday night, and all public gatherings were banned along with the sale of alcohol and the transportation of weapons, the High Commission said.

The international airport in Noumea shut down and canceled all commercial flights on Tuesday, and some consulates in the city shut their doors.

The protests started on Monday, before a scheduled Tuesday vote in the French Parliament on a change to New Caledonia’s Constitution that would expand French citizens’ eligibility to vote in provincial elections. Some pro-independence activists in the territory fear that the amendment would water down their movement.

Many police officers were injured in the unrest, the High Commission said on Tuesday morning, adding that shops, pharmacies, supermarkets and car dealers in the capital and some outlying areas had sustained damage. At least 36 people were arrested, the commission said.

Christy Powell, an Australian tourist who was staying in Noumea, said on Tuesday night that she could hear intermittent explosions even though the streets around her were quiet because of the curfew. Throughout the day, thick black smoke had billowed from the direction of the protests in the city center, she said.

Tensions in New Caledonia had been building for several weeks over the proposed constitutional change. Since 2007, the territory’s voter rolls have been effectively frozen, with only those who were listed in 1998 eligible to vote in subsequent elections.

The amendment would give voting rights to all French citizens who have lived in the territory for 10 years, effectively increasing the rolls by about 20,000 to 25,000 people, according to Adrian Muckle, a senior lecturer in history at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand who is an expert on New Caledonia. The territory, a tiny smattering of islands, has a population of about 270,000.

Independence has long been a fraught issue in New Caledonia, which France annexed in 1853. When violence broke out between supporters and opponents of independence in the 1980s, the French government played a mediating role and came to be seen as a relatively neutral party in the dispute, according to Dr. Muckle.

But since President Emmanuel Macron came to office in 2017, Dr. Muckle said, the French government has more clearly signaled its opposition to independence.

The latest upheaval stems from what some in the pro-independence movement regard as a more aggressive attempt by the French government to assert its will over the territory in recent years, Dr. Muckle said.

Mr. Macron has positioned New Caledonia and France’s other Pacific territories as a bulwark against China, which is expanding its clout in the Indo-Pacific, Dr. Muckle said. New Caledonia also has some of the world’s largest nickel reserves, which has been another point of friction between local populations, corporations and the French government.

The territory has held three referendums on independence since 2018, all of which failed. Only about 44 percent of voters participated in the most recent referendum, in 2021. Many Indigenous Kanaks — who make up about 40 percent of New Caledonia’s population — boycotted the vote after the French government refused to delay it despite urging from Kanak leaders who had argued that lengthy mourning traditions after a coronavirus wave had made campaigning impossible.