New Caledonia votes this weekend under tight security

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 on Sunday 30 June, and the second one on Sunday 7 July.

Since early May, the unrest has caused nine direct fatalities and the closure, looting and vandalism of several hundred companies and homes. More than 3,500 security forces have been dispatched, with the damage estimated at €1.5 billion (NZ$2.64 billion).

Earlier this month, 86.5 percent of New Caledonian voters abstained as part of 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.

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 transportation 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 a.m. 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 cities 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 focussing 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.

“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

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 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.

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

PALIKA’s 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 one of his closest associates, Yéwéné Yéwéné, were gunned down by a member of the radical fringe of the pro-independence movement.

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