Unrest in New Caledonia: A Turbulent May

The ongoing protests in the French overseas territory have caused significant international concern. Travel Security Analyst Thorsten Muth sheds some light on the background.

(Image: AI-generated illustration)

Black smoke over Nouméa. New Caledonia’s tourist image has been suffering for more than a week now: road blockades and burnt-out cars are overshadowing images of pristine white beaches and South Sea flair. The current unrest has been triggered by a planned change in the law with which the government in faraway Paris wants to grant thousands of French-born inhabitants of the Pacific island state the right to vote. Supporters of the New Caledonian independence movement see the reform as a threat to the political participation of the indigenous Kanak population.

Clouds of Smoke instead of Kava Cocktails: Thousands of Tourists are left stranded

The initially peaceful demonstrations in Nouméa, the capital of the overseas territory which is home to 271,000 inhabitants, escalated into violent clashes on 13 May 2024. The authorities in Paris declared a state of emergency, banned gatherings and increased the contingent of French security forces in New Caledonia by a thousand troops. With at least six fatalities, it is the deadliest conflict the archipelago has seen in over three decades. The local travel industry is also suffering from the ongoing crisis: More than 3,200 tourists have been stranded in Nouméa and other places, where many are holding out in the relative safety of their hotels for the time being. But food and medicine are slowly running out. The evacuation measures initiated by the governments of the main countries of origin, France, Australia and New Zealand, have been slow to take effect. The international airport remains closed for the time being.

Presidential Attempts at Conciliation: “Return to Peace, Calm, Security”

Several referendums on New Caledonia’s independence in the past have all been in favour of the islands remaining part of France, but relations with the mainland have long been strained. A spontaneous symbolic visit by the French President is now intended to bring peace and order to New Caledonia just a few weeks before the European elections: On Thursday (23 May), Emmanuel Macron landed on the main island of Grande Terre and announced that the additional emergency forces, who had done an outstanding job in the face of this “absolutely unprecedented uprising”, should remain in place for the time being. “No-one saw it coming with such a level of organisation and violence,” the president admitted. In the meantime, the evacuations of foreign tourists were suspended during Macron’s visit.

Great Interest in Small Islands: France’s Foreign Policy under Pressure

France’s efforts to stabilise its overseas territory are also motivated by strategic interests, as the developments there could have far-reaching consequences for security issues in the South Pacific, where social tensions have increased and offer areas of attack in geopolitical competition. Although there is no evidence of direct Chinese involvement in the current protests, China’s interest in the Pacific region is significant: it was only in 2022 that the neighbouring Solomon Islands concluded a security agreement with Beijing following major unrest, subsequently suspending docking permits for the US navy. China could consider the New Caledonian independence movement a new ally and further increase the pressure on French foreign policy, which has suffered numerous defeats against Russia in recent years, particularly on the West African front. Other players are also taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of France’s domestic and foreign policy to raise their profile: An initiative group from Azerbaijan, which is also active in territories such as French Guiana, French Polynesia, Guadeloupe, and Corsica, has already pledged its support to the New Caledonians and sent Azerbaijani flags to Nouméa in response to French arms deliveries to Armenia.

A3M informs its clients within minutes and keeps tourism industry stakeholders up to date in the event of a crisis: The team of our Travel Security Analysts also keeps an eye on Oceania and ensures that you get from A to B safely with Global Monitoring.


Thorsten Muth