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Deadly Clashes in a French Pacific Territory Raise Fears of Civil War

A chocolate factory and a soda bottling plant set on fire. Molotov cocktails thrown at the police, and prisoners taking guards hostage. Five people dead. As protests against French control boiled over this week in New Caledonia, the South Pacific archipelago experienced some of its most intense violence since a civil war decades ago.

“I’m in a state of shock, I can’t move,” Lizzie Carboni, a writer who lives in Noumea, the capital, said by phone as the fourth night of protests began on Thursday. When she checked on her parents, Ms. Carboni said that her mother told her: “We never wanted to tell you about what happened in 1984, but it’s happening again.”

France annexed New Caledonia, which lies about 900 miles off the eastern coast of Australia, in 1853. It built a penal colony and over time shipped in more foreigners to mine New Caledonia’s vast nickel reserves. That eventually made the Indigenous Kanaks a minority in their own land.

The most serious challenge to French rule came in the 1980s, when French troops were ordered in to quell a violent uprising. Dozens of people died in the ensuing clashes. To end the fighting, French authorities agreed to put New Caledonia on a pathway to independence.

But the calculus in France has changed in recent years with the intensification of the jostling between the United States and China for influence in the Pacific. French officials fear that China could gain sway in an independent New Caledonia, just as it has sought to do in other South Pacific countries like Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.

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