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Help is coming for Kiwis – what’s behind the unrest?

The New Zealand Defense Force (NZDF) is ready to rescue New Zealanders trapped in New Caledonia amid widespread unrest on French territory – but they are awaiting final approval from French authorities, says Defense Minister Judith Collins.

The Pacific archipelago has been in a tumultuous state of unrest for about a week, with about 230 people arrested and six dead so far. About 250 New Zealanders are present.

Hundreds of French troops have been deployed to secure the road to Nouméa-La Tontouta airport.

Violence broke out over proposed changes to New Caledonia’s electoral rolls discussed by the French government in Paris, putting the issue of New Caledonian independence in the spotlight.

Asked about the Kiwis stuck in New Caledonia, Defense Minister Judith Collins told 1News: “(The) New Zealand Defense Force tells me they are ready and willing to bring the New Zealanders back to New Zealand .

Defense Minister Judith Collins.

“But discussions are ongoing with the French government and that is happening through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.”

And Collins had advice for New Zealanders on French soil.

‘Stay home, wherever you can, just stay indoors. Stay in touch with MFAT, with the Consul General,” she said. ‘Make sure you are aware of what is going on.

“The New Zealand Defense Force will come for you, but it’s about making sure we go through the right channels as well.”

The minister acknowledged that the situation was worrying.

“Please stay indoors, don’t go out into the streets,” she repeated.

‘A perfect storm’ – expert

Smoke rises during protests in Noumea, New Caledonia.

Anna Powles from Massey University’s Center for Defense and Security Studies told Breakfast this morning: “What we are seeing is a perfect storm of frustration among the Kanak people of New Caledonia, who make up around 41% of the population.”

The archipelago’s indigenous Kanaks have generally encouraged independence efforts, while descendants of colonists generally want to remain part of France.

There are “deep frustrations” over proposed changes to the electoral roll, which would allow residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years to vote in provincial elections, Powles said.

“(The changes would) essentially re-release the electoral roll, which has existed in its current form since about 2007.

“What it would mean is that New Caledonia would see around 25,000 additional French residents added to the list, which would tip the balance in terms of the pro-independence versus anti-independence composition within the government.”

For the first time, the territory has a pro-independence government, she added.

“Then of course you have decades of frustration over poor outcomes for the Kanak people, huge economic and social inequality across the territory, poverty, poor education, limited access to good quality housing.”

These issues were exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, Powles explained.

Why is the territory so important to the French?

Municipal police vans patrol the streets of Noumea, New Caledonia.

“New Caledonia and French Polynesia, and Wallis and Futuna, their exclusive economic zones together, provide France with the largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the world,” Powles said.

‘The importance of New Caledonia and French Polynesia, those areas in the Pacific Ocean, is therefore geostrategic.

“It is a reflection of France’s strategic story as a maritime nation and has become increasingly important as a result of French interest in the Indo-Pacific.”

Powles added that – after New Zealand evacuated Kiwis from the violence-hit area – there needed to be discussion about New Zealand’s role going forward.

“It is clear that the situation cannot continue,” she said.

‘They should… go back to France’ – advocate

French gendarmes patrol the streets of Noumea, New Caledonia.

Indigenous rights advocate Tina Ngata said the conflict stemmed directly from the French annexation of New Caledonia.

“All of these really unfortunate, horrific outcomes – actually, if you look at them closely – are ones that we as Māori are very familiar with.

“They are the result of colonization,” she said. ‘There is no reason why France should still occupy that space.

‘They must demilitarize and return to France.

“What we are seeing is completely predictable, but also completely preventable.”

What is France doing about the situation?

RNZ reports that French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal – after a 12-day presidential state of emergency was declared midweek – now chaired daily meetings of an “interministerial crisis cell”, also involving Interior and Overseas Minister Gérald Darmanin, his deputy. Marie Guévenoux, Minister of the Army Sébastien Lecornu and Minister of Justice Eric Dupont-Moretti.

A “dialogue mission” would likely be set up and travel to New Caledonia in an attempt to rebuild trust between Paris and its dependence on the South Pacific.

Several key figures on the French political scene had called for this mission. Senate President Gérard Larcher and Yaël Braun-Pivet, President of the National Assembly, were mentioned as possible envoys.