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Looting and rioting has stopped in New Caledonia but problems remain

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The French overseas territory of New Caledonia has returned to a relative calm after rioting last week. Six people died - they include both civilians and law enforcement - and the looting and destruction caused an estimated $1 billion of damages to businesses and property. Police are now trying to remove roadblocks that remain all around the capitol. So what does this group of islands, 750 miles off the coast of Australia, have to do with France? NPR's Eleanor Beardsley joins us from Paris. Good morning, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So what's happening right now on the ground in the capital in New Caledonia?

BEARDSLEY: Well, the looting and rioting has stopped. More than 1,000 police officers flew in over the weekend from mainland France. They're said to be playing a cat and mouse game with mostly young people still manning these road blocks around the capital, Noumea. When the police remove one, another one pops up, and the road to the airport is still closed. Tourists are stranded. Some Australian tourists had to be evacuated by military plane from another airfield because the main airport is still closed, and New Zealand's prime minister says his nation will be acting to get its tourists out.

FADEL: So if you look at the map, this is a bit of an extraordinary story. New Caledonia is practically on the other side of the world from France, but it's part of France. Quick history lesson - how did we get to this point?

BEARDSLEY: Well, exactly, Leila. New Caledonia was colonized by France in the mid-19th century, and in 1946, it became an overseas French territory. It's residents are French citizens. I guess you could describe it as a kind of French Puerto Rico, only it's 10,000 miles away from France. The recent problems began when the French Parliament in Paris voted to change the territory's constitution to enlarge voter lists to include residents who've lived on the islands for at least 10 years, and that means the more recently arrived white residents. And a pro-independence coalition made up of indigenous people, known as the Kanak objected, saying that would dilute their voice. You know, this territory has had a fragile peace for the last decades because of these tensions about independence. In the '80s, there was deadly unrest, which led to an agreement where France agreed to foster increased autonomy for the island.

Over the last decade, three independence referendums have been held. Each time, the population voted to remain French. But those in favor of independence rose to as high as 47% in 2020. It largely breaks down along ethnic lines, but not entirely, not all the Kanaks who make up about 20% of the Archipelago want independence. And it's worth adding that New Caledonia gets about $1 billion in subsidies each year from France.

FADEL: So what could come of all this unrest?

BEARDSLEY: Well, President Emanuel Macron has invited both sides of the issue for talks in Paris, but there is pressure on the president to cancel this voter list measure entirely because there are big geopolitical stakes, though. I spoke with Philippe Le Corre - he's a senior fellow with the Asia Society Policy Institute - about what New Caledonia means for France.

PHILIPPE LE CORRE: It is part of France's Indo-Pacific strategy that is itself part of the European Indo-Pacific strategy. It is the only EU state that has such a massive territorial presence. And of course, China is the one that is here to pick up the pieces if the territory of New Caledonia falls apart.

BEARDSLEY: You know, New Caledonia is so important to France's strategy in the region that President Macron just announced that he's going there himself tonight to meet with leaders.

FADEL: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley. Thank you, Eleanor.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.