Trouble in the South Pacific

The glossy travel brochures and tourist websites show aquamarine seas, dazzling white sandy beaches and verdant landscapes under cloudless cerulean skies.

The swaying palms and relaxed resort lifestyles of the South Pacific provide a highly attractive proposition for Kiwis looking to take a holiday not too far from home.

But, as we have seen in recent weeks, the idyllic images don’t reflect the realities of life for those living on the islands strung across the world’s largest ocean.

The pictures of paradise are purely for affluent Westerners. For locals it is instead poverty, unemployment, a lack of opportunities and the cloying remnants of European colonisation which colour their existence.

In New Zealand we are used to thinking about violence, war and strife in far-flung corners of the world. It comes as little surprise when there is fighting and death in the Middle East, on the fringes of Europe, and in parts of Asia and the Americas.

What does shock us is when events in our quieter and seemingly more peaceful region become explosive and lives are lost, as has happened in New Caledonia in the past week.

That’s not to say we live in a bubble immune from such trouble or oblivious to it. The South Pacific has had its fair share of upheaval and outpourings of anger in recent decades.

The peace has been shattered many times. There have been coups, there have been riots and battles, and there were of course the highly controversial nuclear-bomb tests carried out by France on its territories, particularly the Muroroa atoll, over about 30 years until 1996.

Few New Zealanders will have forgotten the outrage these tests fired up within them and how that anger could have sparked something bigger than political salvoes when French spies bombed Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour in 1985, killing photographer Fernando Pereira.

Smoke rises from a fire in Noumea amid riots last week. Photo: Djelyna Lebonwacalie/via REUTERS
Smoke rises from a fire in Noumea amid riots last week. Photo: Djelyna Lebonwacalie/via REUTERS
This time it is another French-colonised territory, in Melanesia, which is in the spotlight for the worst of reasons. New Caledonia, a three-hour flight from Auckland but 17,000km from Paris, is in turmoil over political manoeuvring.

New Caledonia’s indigenous Kanak population, who comprise about 41% of the population of just on 300,000, are incensed over electoral reforms endorsed by the French Senate and National Assembly in Paris which will allow French residents who have lived on the islands for 10 years or more to vote in local elections.

Kanak groups see this as a step backwards from a 1998 agreement which limited voting rights and as a smack in the face for their seeking self-rule and independence, and the end to French sovereignty and colonialism. France insists it is a move which supports democracy.

The reforms still require approval from Congress, formed of both the upper and lower houses of parliament. French President Emmanuel Macron initially wanted this before the end of June but that now appears likely to be delayed.

Six people have died as a result of the rioting and looting which has erupted during the past week, including three Kanaks and two police officers. More than 230 people have been arrested.

About 1000 French troops and police have now been brought in to control the unrest and guarantee safe access to Noumea’s international airport and to other vital transport networks. According to French high commissioner Louis Le Franc, there are hundreds of well-organised rioters just waiting to fight the police and military contingent.

Around 250 Kiwis who were holidaying or studying in New Caledonia are stranded for now. An air force plane was on its way to the island yesterday for the first of a series of planned repatriation flights.

New Caledonia, which was annexed by France in 1853 and became one of its overseas territory 78 years ago after the end of World War 2, has had a rocky ride. It is only 36 years since the last significant unrest precipitated an extreme response from the French, in which 19 Kanaks and two police were killed.

As a near-neighbour, New Zealand has an important diplomatic and aid role to play in supporting all the peoples of New Caledonia.

If it were ever needed, the violence provides a salutary reminder of the dangers of colonial powers clinging on to possessions when indigenous peoples have cried "enough".