Macron calls for ‘peace, security’ on visit to riot-hit New Caledonia

1 month ago 17

France's president held a flurry of meetings with local representatives in the restive Pacific territory of New Caledonia on Thursday, urging calm after deadly rioting, and vowing thousands of military reinforcements will stay in place to quell the "unprecedented insurrection".

Issued on: 23/05/2024 - 15:07

3 min

Emmanuel Macron arrived in the capital Noumea after a 24-hour flight seeking ways to end more than a week of looting, arson and clashes that have left six people dead and hundreds injured. The unrest erupted over a French voting reform plan that indigenous Kanaks say will dilute their voice.

As he exited the plane at Tontouta International Airport, the French leader told reporters his "absolute priority" is "a return to peace, calm, security".

He was expected to spend about 12 hours on the ground.

France has ruled New Caledonia since the 1800s, but many indigenous Kanaks still resent Paris's power over their islands and want fuller autonomy or independence.

Read moreWhat to know about New Caledonia

Voting reform plans have "breached the contract of trust" with Paris, said Victor Gogny, president of New Caledonia's senate – a consultative body that weighs in on issues affecting Kanaks.

Since May 13, separatists have thrown up barricades that have cut off whole neighbourhoods and the main route to the international airport, which remains shuttered.

People of French and other origins have blocked off streets in their own neighbourhoods in response.

It had been a "totally unprecedented movement of insurrection," Macron said, adding that "no-one saw it coming with this level of organisation and violence".

Nightly riots have seen scores of cars, schools, shops and businesses burned.

French authorities have imposed a state of emergency, placed separatist leaders under house arrest, banned alcohol sales and sent around 3,000 troops, police and other security reinforcements to quell the turmoil.

'Double or quits'          

The fact that Macron is willing to make such a long journey just weeks before key European elections may show just how high the stakes are.

His visit began with a minute of silence for the dead and hours-long talks with anti-independence elected officials, before visiting a police station to thank security forces.

"By the end of the day" there would be "decisions" and "announcements" about next steps, Macron promised – while adding that he could extend his stay if needed.

Security forces would also "stay for as long as necessary, even during the Olympic and Paralympic Games" to be held in Paris in July-August.

New Caledonia is 17,000 kilometres (10,500 miles) from the French mainland but remains both part of France and a strategic outpost in an increasingly contested region.

China, the United States, New Zealand, Japan, Arab Gulf states and France are vying for influence across the South Pacific – seeing it as crucial geopolitical real estate.

Read moreNew Caledonia hit by cyberattack ahead of Macron's arrival in restive territory

New Caledonia is also attractive as one of the world's largest nickel producers, with up to 30 percent of global reserves.

The archipelago's deadliest unrest in four decades was sparked by French plans to give voting rights to thousands of non-indigenous long-term residents, something Kanaks say would dilute the influence of their votes.

New Caledonia has on three occasions rejected independence in referendums.

But the last of those ballots took place during the Covid-19 pandemic and was boycotted by much of the Kanak population.

Macron ruled out going back on the result of the referendums, saying peace could not come at the cost of ignoring the will of the people or "somehow denying the road that has already been taken".

He last visited New Caledonia in July 2023, on a trip that was boycotted by Kanak representatives.

But leaders of all pro-independence parties joined Thursday's meeting with Macron, his office said, including top movement the Caledonian Union (UC) and the CCAT collective that has organised months of protests.

Out on the streets, AFP correspondents saw Kanaks still manning reinforced roadblocks on the day of Macron's visit, flying pro-independence flags and displaying protest banners against the electoral reform.

The draft law "doesn't exist to us any more, since people have died, it's no longer even up for discussion," said Lele, a 41-year-old mother in favour of independence.

But a heavy police presence was sheltering some semblance of normal life in central Noumea, where many shops had reopened to customers and long queues formed outside bakeries.

'Frustrating'

Hundreds of tourists from Australia and New Zealand have begun to flee the turmoil, although hundreds more remain trapped.

Read moreAustralia and New Zealand send rescue planes to bring back nationals from New Caledonia

There was anger Thursday that Macron's heavily secured visit had put further repatriation flights on hold.

Australia's foreign ministry emailed travellers to say there would be no flights Thursday, a situation New Zealand's Foreign Minister Winston Peters called "frustrating".

Efforts to reopen the international airport for commercial flights have been repeatedly delayed. But operators hope connections will resume on Saturday.

(AFP) 

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