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OPINION: Riots in New Caledonia call into question the survival of 'global' France

John Lichfield
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OPINION: Riots in New Caledonia call into question the survival of 'global' France
French President Emmanuel Macron arrives at the central police station in Noumea in the riot-stricken Pacific territory of New Caledonia. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP

As Emmanuel Macron arrives in the riot-scarred Pacific islands of New Caledonia, John Lichfield considers whether France's model of overseas territories can survive in the 21st century.


President Emmanuel Macron took off from France on Tuesday night, flew 16,000 kilometres to the south east and landed in France.

He was following the example of President François Mitterrand who made a similar flight in 1985 to prevent civil war amid the palms, lagoons, beaches and nickel mines of a fragment of the French Republic 1,200 kilometres east of Brisbane.

Since last Tuesday, six people, including two gendarmes, have died in riots, verging on an insurrection, in New Caledonia, which has been French since the 1850s and part of France since 1960.

Over 400 shops and businesses have been burned. Live ammunition has been fired.

Listen to John and the team at The Local discussing the riots in the latest episode of the Talking France podcast. Download here or listen on the link below


The riots in paradise have many causes. The local economy, built on nickel-mining, tourism and €1.5 billion a year in subsidies from Paris, fell off a palm-tree four years ago.


The indigenous Kanak community, 40 percent of the 270,000 population, fears that their hopes of winning independence from Paris one day will be crushed by a change in the French constitution which will be finalised next month. At present, local voting rights are limited to people who lived in the islands in 1998. The change would enfranchise all French adults who already lived in New Caledonia in 2014.

The crisis raises a deeper question. Can France’s proud claim to be a “global” country - the world’s only global country - survive the anti-colonial and identity-driven politics of the 21st century?

There are 12 detached parts of France scattered all over the globe, in the Caribbean, in the Indian Ocean, in the Pacific, in South America and off Canada.

READ ALSO 'Confetti of an empire' - France's overseas territories explained

Other countries, including Britain, the USA and the Netherlands, have overseas territories. France is alone in treating some of its former colonies as part of France.

The 2.7 million inhabitants of France Outre-Mer (overseas France) vote in French national elections. They are subject to some (not all) parts of the French constitution. They belong to the European Union. Most of them use the Euro.


France is a country on which the sun never sets; France’s longest land-border is with Brazil; Australia’s nearest neighbour is France, in two directions; France has the second largest maritime, exclusive, economic zone in the world but only 4 percent of it is in Europe.

The French have an ambivalent attitude to this global reach. It is a vague source of pride. It is multiplier of military and strategic strength. It is economically useful, up to a point.

But it is also a drag on public finances. People from Martinique or Guyane or Reunion are French but they are often regarded as migrants and foreigners if they go to L’Hexagone.

In almost all cases, overseas parts of France are poorer than European France. They have higher unemployment, poorer education and less complete health care, lower wages and higher prices.

On the other hand, they are almost all better off than their nearest regional neighbours. They all depend on subsidies from Paris.

Although the 12 overseas départements and territories are “fully France”, they all have different constitutional and legal arrangements which reflect local histories and cultures.


Overseas France takes an equally schizophrenic view towards “Big France”. There is constant talk of independence in all the territories and departments, except possibly St Pierre et Miquelon, two tiny islands off the coast of Newfoundland with a population of 5,700. No independence movement has majority support.

There has been serious social unrest in recent years in Guadeloupe, Martinique and Guyane in the Caribbean and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean. After riots in Guadeloupe two years ago (over Covid restrictions and other things) the French government spoke of offering more “autonomy” to the island but not independence. Nothing much has happened since.

Of all the global fragments of France, New Caledonia is the most far-flung, the most politically complex and the most troubled.

New Caledonia – Le Caillou (the pebble) - is the only part of faraway France where the indigenous population has become a minority, albeit a large minority, in its own homeland.

The original Melanesian or Kanak inhabitants of the islands (40 percent of the total) are mostly in favour of independence but split into various political and tribal factions.


The Kanaks were not given French citizenship until 1946 and were denied a vote until 1957. They remain, on the whole, less successful educationally and economically than the other New Caledonians.

Roughly 40 percent of the population consists of incomers from other Pacific islands or Asian countries, attracted by jobs in the nickel and tourism industries.

Another 20 percent are ethnic French or mixed race. Some are descended from 19th century convicts or settlers (the  Caldoches). Others are more recent arrivals (Metros or Zoreilles). Most of the non-Kanaks who have French citizenship want to remain part of France.

As a delayed part of the political agreement which ended the crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, there have been three referenda on independence in recent years. In 2018 and 2020, the population split largely on ethnic lines and voted narrowly (by 56 percent and 53 percent) to remain French.

The Kanak parties boycotted a third poll in 2021. Those who did vote rejected independence by 96.5 percent. to 3.5 percent.

The pro-French parties say that the game is over. Local democracy should return to normal. If New Caledonia is part of France, all French residents of New Caledonia should have a vote.


A compromise on a ten years residency rule was accepted by moderate Kanak leaders but rejected by more militant independence movements. The riots, mostly led by young Kanaks, began when the National Assembly in Paris approved the changes last week.

Like the banlieue riots in mainland France last summer, the violence consists partly of an orgy of self-harm. The young Kanaks have wrecked the shops, businesses, schools and cars which their own families depend on.

Anti-independence politicians put the blame on radical Kanak factions who want to de-stabilise a territory that they cannot control.

Some island commentators put part of the blame on Emmanuel Macron. A couple of years ago, he broke the unspoken rule that Paris should stay neutral in New Caledonia by appointing a leading anti-independence politician, Sonia Backès, as a junior minister in his national government.

The interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, also ignored warnings of a revolt if he pushed ahead with a change in voting rights limits without wider agreement on more cultural and political autonomy for New Caledonia.

Macron’s purpose in flying around the world from France to France is to appoint a three-person mission to reconsider the status of the islands. If all sides agree to cooperate on a broad new negotiation (short of independence), the final vote on the voting change next month will be postponed.

Whether such political manoeuvres mean anything to the armed Kanak teenagers on the barricades is uncertain. They have grown up being told that they are French but – for good or ill – don’t see their future as part of a country on the far side of the world.

Whatever the outcome, events in New Caledonia convey no easy lessons for developments in other parts of Global France. No two overseas fragments are the same. The system is muddled, baffling but too complex to vanish any time soon.

But managing the present jumble of post-colonial arrangements is becoming more troubled under pressure from climate change, economic hardships and the distorting mirror of social media.

Even bigger investments will be needed from Paris in cash and political energy in the years ahead. Both are, and will remain, in short supply.



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