Explained: What’s behind the violence on French island of New Caledonia?

Violent unrest has disrupted daily life on the French Pacific island of New Caledonia - leaving several dead and prompting president Emmanuel Macron to declare a state of emergency. Here's a look at what’s happening, why, and why it matters so much to France.

Masked residents set-up roadblocks in the Motor Pool district of Noumea
Masked residents set-up roadblocks in the Motor Pool district of Noumea. (Photo by Delphine Mayeur / AFP)

Four people have died and hundreds more injured, shops were looted and public buildings torched during a third night of rioting in New Caledonia – Nouvelle-Calédonie, in French – as anger over planned constitutional reforms boiled over.

On Wednesday, president Emmanuel Macron declared a state of emergency as the violence continued, while prime minister Gabriel Attal announced a ban on TikTok, which he said was being used to coordinate the riots.

What began as pro-independence demonstrations have spiralled into three days of the worst violence seen on the French Pacific archipelago since the 1980s. 

Police have arrested more than 200 people since the riots broke out Monday night, with dozens placed in detention to face court hearings, the commission said.

A curfew has been put in place, and armed security forces are patrolling the streets of the capital Noumea. Among the dead is a police officer who succumbed to injuries received during the riots.

So, New Caledonia is a French colony?

New Caledonia is, officially, a collectivité d’Outre mer (overseas collective). It’s not one of the five départements d’Outre mer – French Guiana in South America, Martinique and Gaudeloupe in the Caribbean and Réunion and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean – which are officially part of France.

As a collectivité, New Caledonia has special status that was negotiated in 1988 that gives it increasing autonomy over time and more say over its own affairs that the French overseas départements.

Home to about 269,000 people, the archipelago was a penal colony in the 19th century. Today its economy is based mainly on agriculture and vast nickel resources.

What has prompted the riots?

This is about voting rights.

Pro-independence groups believe that constitutional reforms that would give the vote to anyone who has lived on the island for 10 years would dilute the vote held by the indigenous Kanak people – who make up about 41 percent of the population, and the majority of whom favour independence.

New Caledonia’s voter lists have not been updated since 1998 when the Noumea Accord was signed, depriving island residents who arrived from mainland France or elsewhere since of a vote in provincial polls, enlarging the size of the voting population.

Proponents of the reform say that it just updates voting rolls to include long-time residents, opponents believe that it’s an attempt to gerrymander any future votes on independence for the islands.

The Noumea Accord – what’s that?

It was an agreement, signed in 1998, in which France said it would grant increased political power to New Caledonia and its original population, the Kanaks, over a 20-year transition period. 

It was signed on May 5th 1998 by Lionel Jospin, and approved in a referendum in New Caledonia on November 8th, with 72 percent voting in favour.

The landmark deal has led to three referendums. In 2018, 57 percent voted to remain closely linked to France; in October 2020, the vote decreased to 53 percent. In a third referendum in 2021, the people again voted against full sovereignty, albeit with a very low turnout.

And that’s what the reforms are about?

Yes. The reforms, which have been voted through by MPs in France, but must still be approved by a joint sitting of both houses of the French parliament, would grant the right to vote to anyone who has lived on the island for 10 years or more. 

President Emmanuel Macron has said that lawmakers will vote to definitively adopt the constitutional change by the end of June, unless New Caledonia’s political parties agree on a new text that, “takes into account the progress made and everyone’s aspirations”.

Autonomy has its limits.

How serious is the unrest?

French President Emmanuel Macron urged calm in a letter to the territory’s representatives, calling on them to “unambiguously condemn” the “disgraceful and unacceptable” violence.

New Caledonia pro-independence leader, Daniel Goa, asked people to “go home”, and condemned the looting.

But “the unrest of the last 24 hours reveals the determination of our young people to no longer let France take control of them,” he added.

This isn’t the first time there’s been unrest on the island, is it?

There has been a long history of ethnic tensions on New Caledonia, starting in 1878 when a Kanak insurgency over the rights of Kanaks in the mining industry left 200 Europeans and 600 rebels dead. Some 1,500 Kanaks were sent into exile.

Clashes between Kanaks and Caldoches in the 1980s culminated in a bloody attack and hostage-taking by Kanak separatists in 1988, when six police officers and 19 militants were killed on the island of Ouvea.

Member comments

  1. It is not correct that the third referendum in 2021 resulted in “another narrow margin.” In fact, votes against independence prevailed 96.5% to 3.5% for independence. But the Kanaks (native population) boycotted the third referendum, ostensibly because it took place during a mourning period for Kanaks who had died from Covid. One can surmise it may actually have been because, had everyone voted, the “non” to independence votes would have prevailed in the third and final referendum.

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GAME: Build your own coalition in France’s parliament

As France's political deadlock continues, the French newspaper Le Monde has developed a tool that allows people to attempt to build their own coalition majority in the Assemblée Nationale.

GAME: Build your own coalition in France's parliament

More than a week after France’s snap elections the parliament is still deadlocked and politicians seem more interested in fighting each other than building alliances.

Therefore France’s newspaper of record Le Monde has suggested that its readers might like to have go instead, creating a ‘build your own coalition’ game.

Following the snap parliamentary elections on July 7th, the left-wing coalition, Nouveau Front Populaire (NFP) got the largest number of seats (193) but fell far short of an absolute majority (289 seats out of 577). They were followed by the centrist bloc with 164 seats and the far-right Rassemblement National and allies in third place with 143. 

Moving forward, there are a few options for how parliament could be governed, with a broad coalition being one of them. However, this possibility remains complicated, as the three major blocs (the left, the centre and the far-right) seem disinterested in working with one another.

READ MORE: Does France have a government right now?

Le Monde has developed a tool that allows users to attempt to build their own coalition, piecing together the individual parties and groups in order to try to create an absolute majority.

Maybe one of their readers will find the solution that is evading the politicians. 

You can test it out for yourself HERE.

When playing, you will be given the option to click on several parties, watching them populate the chamber until you reach (or fail to reach) an absolute majority.  

Once you have reached a majority, you will see a green tick and the message ‘majorité atteinte‘ – you can then begin governing France (we think that’s how it works anyway).

Example of a successful coalition in the French parliament.


In order to play, you will need to know each of the different groups and their political positions

The left

On the left of the political spectrum we have the various members of the Nouveau Front Populaire (NFP), coloured purple in the game. 

NFP – PC: The communist party. Greatly diminished from its heyday in the 1950s and 60s, the party remains a force at a local level, but only won 9 seats in the Assemblée. Led by Fabien Roussel.

NFP – LFI: The largest party within the group is La France Insoumise, with 74 seats. Translating as ‘France unbowed’ this is the party furthest to the left in the NFP. Founded by Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

NFP – EELV: The green party, part of NFP. Previously Europe Ecologie Les Verts, sometimes still referred to as EELV or Les Verts. They hold 28 seats.

NFP – Géneration.s: Formed in 2017, a splinter party from the original Parti Socialiste. They hold 5 seats, and are part of NFP.

NFP – PS: The centre-left party. One of two that dominated French politics in the post-war period, producing presidents François Mitterand and François Hollande, these days it is much reduced. Current leader – Olivier Faure. They hold 59 seats.

NFP – Rég: MPs representing primarily individual French regions and identities, left-leaning. They have two seats.

NFP – Divers gauche: Other left-wing MPs aligned with NFP. 13 seats, including people like Danielle Simonnet and Alexis Corbière who were previously members of the LFI group.

The rest of the left

Although almost all of the left-wing MPs are part of the Nouveau Front Populaire group (at least for now), but there are some exceptions.

Divers gauche: Non-affiliated left-wing MPs, coloured red in the game;

The centre

Centrist candidates are mostly part of the Ensemble group, which includes Emmanuel Macron’s party and which is coloured yellow in the game.

Ensemble Modem: The original centrist party headed by François Bayrou, now part of the Ensemble alliance with Macron’s party. They hold 33 seats.

Ensemble Horizons: The new centrists founded by Macron’s former prime minister Edouard Philippe, who is strongly tipped to be the centrist candidate in the 2027 presidential elections when Macron himself cannot stand again. Also part of the Ensemble alliance, for now. They hold 25 seats.

Ensemble Renaissance: Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party, spearheading the Ensemble coalition. They were previously named La république en marche (LREM) and before that En Marche. For the sake of convenience, they’re often referred to simply as Macronistes. They hold 102 seats.

Ensemble UDI: Members of the centre-right group that chose to join with the Macronists. Two seats.

Ensemble Divers: Other centrist MPs in the Ensemble group. Six seats.

The rest of the centre

UDI et divers centre: Members of the centre-right group founded in 2012, as well as non-affiliated centrists. Six seats.

The right

The politicians on the right of the political spectrum have not, so far, managed to create any kind of unified alliance so remain within individual parties.

Divers droite: Non-affiliated right-wing MPs. 14 seats.

LR: Les Républicains are the second of the two parties that dominated post war politics (party of Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac and political heirs of Charles de Gaulle) this party too is greatly diminished. Originally centre right, it has moved sharply to the right in recent years under leader Eric Ciotti. Ciotti created an electoral alliance with the far-right Rassemblement National which horrified many party members and resulted in a split. The LR designation denotes the part of the party which is not affiliated with far-right Rassemblement National. They hold 46 seats.

LR-RN: The group that is part of the Ciotti/RN alliance is known as Les Républicains à droite or Les amis de Ciotti. 17 seats.

RN: The far-right Rassemblement National. Founded in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen under the name Front National, the party changed its name to Rassemblement National (national rally) after Le Pen’s daughter Marine took over. She remains the party’s presidential candidate but the party leader – and RN prime minister if the party wins a majority – is Jordan Bardella. They were expected to win a majority of seats, but instead came in third place with 126.

READ MORE: Ask the experts: How far-right is France’s Rassemblement National?

Régionalistes, autres: Other non-affiliated MPs and members of regionalist parties.