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France hurries to let New Caledonia vote in European elections after its deadly unrest. Few want to

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NICE, France (AP) — Days after France lifted emergency measures in New Caledonia to quell the worst unrest in decades in its Pacific territory, it is hurrying to ensure that residents of the troubled archipelago can vote in the upcoming European elections.

But many, especially among the Indigenous Kanaks who have long sought independence, don’t care.

European elections have traditionally seen low attendance in New Caledonia, whose votes weigh little against 48 million voters in mainland France and other overseas territories. European funds rarely reach the territory. Only 20% of voters participated in the 2019 elections.

Now, as barricades of charred vehicles remain in New Caledonia’s capital even after French President Emmanuel Macron visited in an attempt to calm tensions, the election turnout is expected to be even lower.

“I don’t even know what it’s about,” a woman waiting for bread told broadcaster France Info. “I’m not going to vote because we’re not in the mood for that.”

Most of New Caledonia’s 270,000 residents are eligible to participate in the European elections, the second-biggest exercise in democracy behind India’s recent elections. Starting Saturday, almost 400 million voters will elect 720 members of the European Parliament, influencing everything from global climate and security policies to migration issues and relations with powers like China and the United States that have been asserting themselves in the South Pacific.

But that feels far away for many in New Caledonia, long the setting for tensions between those seeking independence and those loyal to France.

The recent deadly unrest included seven dead, protests, clashes, looting and arson. It prompted Macron to impose a state of emergency on May 15 and rush in 3,500 French troops.

French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said the government is doing “everything necessary to ensure that the elections will take place” in the Pacific archipelago. Although violence has subsided, pro-independence leaders have called on supporters to “maintain resistance” against France.

Parts of the capital, Noumea, remain no-go zones, despite the French interior ministry’s announcement on Friday that authorities have regained full control there. Bus services have not resumed, and neither have schools. A curfew is still in place, and the main international airport has been closed for three weeks.

Attal acknowledged in an interview this week with France Info that New Caledonia is “far from a return to normal.”

Alan Boufenèche, director of a civic initiative in Nouméa, said the French military delivered ballot boxes and voting material on Monday. Police and army troops will escort municipal workers to distribute them among 57 polling stations that will be grouped on six sites in the capital instead of the usual 37 for security.

Speaking to France Info, Boufenèche said several of municipal offices were damaged and many of their vehicles set on fire in the violence, “so we are making do with what we have.”

The violence flared in response to attempts by Macron’s government to amend the French Constitution and change voting lists in New Caledonia. Opponents fear the legislation will benefit pro-France politicians in New Caledonia and further marginalize the Kanaks who have long pushed to be free of French rule amid sharp economic disparities and decades of discrimination.

During his visit, Macron said he won’t force through the contested voting reform. He also ordered the state of emergency to be lifted to help facilitate dialogue between local parties and French authorities.

Pro-independence parties and Kanak leaders have urged Macron to withdraw the electoral reform bill if France wants to end the crisis.

New Caledonia became French in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III, Napoleon’s nephew and heir. It became an overseas territory – one of France’s 13 such entities – after World War II, with French citizenship granted to all Kanaks in 1957.

The vast archipelago near Australia is not a European Union member, but as a territory legally attached to France, New Caledonia’s population of 270,000 is associated with the 27-member bloc.

Residents have French passports and the right to vote in French presidential elections. An electoral college of 578 elected New Caledonians casts ballots in French parliamentary elections, including for the territory’s two seats in the French senate — 10 times zones away from Paris.

During elections for the French senate in 2023, which coincided with the 170th anniversary of France claiming possession of New Caledonia, a pro-independence Kanak leader, Robert Xowie, was elected. It was only the second time that a pro-independence leader was represented in the French parliament.

Only two New Caledonians have served in the European Parliament. Both were from the loyalist right.

By BARBARA SURK
Associated Press

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