New Caledonia votes first under tight security in French snap election

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A New Caledonian resident places a vote at a ballot box in Nouméa
A New Caledonian resident places a vote at a ballot box in Nouméa . . . at stake is the election of two representatives in the French National Assembly out of 577 members. Image: RNZ

By Patrick Decloitre, RNZ Pacific correspondent French Pacific desk

Voters in New Caledonia will go to the polls this weekend under tight security, almost eight weeks after destructive and violent unrest broke out in the French Pacific archipelago.

They will vote for their two representatives in the 577-seat French National Assembly, which was dissolved by President Emmanuel Macron just before he — in a surprise move — called snap elections earlier this month.

The previous French general elections took place two years ago.

The first round of voting takes place tomorrow and the second one next Sunday, July 7.

Since early May, the unrest has caused nine direct fatalities and the closure, looting and vandalism of several hundred companies and homes. More than 3500 security forces have been dispatched, with the damage now estimated at 1.5 billion euros (NZ$2.64 billion).

Earlier this month, 86.5 percent of New Caledonian voters abstained during the European Parliament elections.

It is anticipated that for these elections, the participation rate could be high.

Both incumbents are on the pro-France (loyalist) side.

On the pro-independence side, internal divisions have resulted in only the hard-line party (part of the FLNKS umbrella, which also includes other moderate parties) managing to field their candidates.

French High Commissioner Louis Le Franc speaks at a press conference on Sunday.
French High Commissioner Louis Le Franc . . . not taking chances. Image: FB screenshot/RNZ

Public meetings and gatherings banned
French High Commissioner Louis Le Franc told media he did not want to take chances, even though no party or municipality had openly called for a boycott or any action hostile to the vote.

He said all public meetings would be banned, on top of a dusk-to-dawn curfew and a ban on the sale and transport of firearms, ammunition and alcohol.

“There are 222,900 registered voters for the legislative elections; the voting habits in New Caledonia are that it happens mostly in the morning. So, the peak hours are between 9 am and noon,” Le Franc said.

He said during those peak hours, queues could be expected outside the polling stations, especially in the Greater Nouméa area (including the neighbouring towns of Païta, Dumbéa and Mont-Dore).

“Provision has been made to ensure that voters who go there are not bothered by collective or individual elements who would like to disrupt the exercise of this democratic right.”

Lennon’s ‘Give Peace a Chance’ in class
This week, more public buildings, including schools and fire stations, have been burnt to the ground, and several schools have closed in the wake of the violence.

However, in Dumbéa, Apogoti High School and 13 other schools partly reopened on Friday, with teachers focusing on workshops.

“We met with all the teachers and we decided to mix several subjects,” music teacher Nicolas Le Yannou told public broadcaster NC la 1ère TV.

“We chose a song from John Lennon (‘Give Peace a Chance’) which calls for peace and then we translated the lyrics into Spanish, French and the local Drehu language.

“That allowed everyone to express themselves without having to brood over the difficult situation we have gone through. For us, music was our way to escape,” Le Yannou said.

Psychological assistance and counselling were also provided to students and teachers when required.

Païta emergency intervention centre burnt down before its official opening
Païta emergency intervention centre was burnt down before its official opening. Image: Union des Pompiers de Calédonie/RNZ

On Thursday, a new fire station under construction near Nouméa-La Tontouta Airport, which was scheduled to be opened later this year, was burnt down.

Pro-independence leader’s house destroyed
The home of one moderate pro-independence leader, Victor Tutugoro (president of the Union Progressiste en Mélanésie, PALIKA), was burnt down by rioters on Wednesday morning.

This prompted condemnation from Le France and New Caledonia’s local government, as well as from the president of New Caledonia’s Northern Province, Paul Néaoutyine.

Néaoutyine, who belongs to the Kanak Liberation Party, said several other politicians from the moderate fringe of FLNKS had also been targeted and threatened over the past few weeks.

Victor Tutugoro at the 22nd Melanesian Spearhead Group Leaders' Summit in Port Vila.
Moderate pro-independence leader Victor Tutugoro . . . . house burnt down, other moderate leaders threatened. Image: RNZ Pacific/Kelvin Anthony

PALIKA’s political bureau also condemned the attacks and destruction of Tutugoro’s residence.

PALIKA spokesman Charles Washetine called for calm and for all remaining roadblocks to be lifted.

“The right to vote is the fruit of a painful common history which commands us to fight for independence through the ballots and through the belief in intelligence which we have all inherited,” the party said.

The elections coincide with the 36th anniversary of the signing of the Matignon-Oudinot Accord between Jean-Marie Tjibaou and Jacques Lafleur, who were the leaders, respectively, of the pro-independence FLNKS and pro-France RPCR parties.

This year, there was no official commemoration ceremony.

After intense talks with then French Socialist Prime Minister Michel Rocard, they both shook hands on 26 June 1988 to mark the end of half a decade of quasi-civil war in New Caledonia.

One year later, Tjibaou and his deputy, Yéwéné Yéwéné, were gunned down by a member of the radical fringe of the pro-independence movement.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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