France’s Macron lands in riot-struck New Caledonia

France’s Macron lands in riot-struck New Caledonia
France’s Macron lands in riot-struck New Caledonia

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - NOUMEA, May 23 — President Emmanuel Macron landed in France’s Pacific territory of New Caledonia yesterday, vowing to restore calm “as quickly as possible” after separatist unrest that has left six people dead and hundreds injured.

Macron’s plane touched down in the capital Noumea to meet political and business leaders, seeking an end to more than a week of looting, arson and deadly clashes that have swept the popular holiday destination.

As he exited the plane at Tontouta International Airport, the French leader told reporters he wanted to ensure that “as quickly as possible there will be a return to peace, calm, security”.

The high commissioner representing France, Louis Le Franc, said the previous night had been calm. “There has been no extra damage, but so many things have been destroyed,” he told AFP.

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There have long been tensions between the Paris government and pro-independence voices among the indigenous Kanak population in New Caledonia, colonised in the second half of the 19th century and part of French overseas territories spanning the globe.

But Le Franc said both sides were “fairly positive” about Macron’s arrival.

It’s a bet’

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Macron’s decision to fly to the southwest Pacific archipelago, around 17,000 kilometres from mainland France, is a sign of the gravity of the crisis.

He is expected to spend about 12 hours on the ground and set up a task force to deal with the crisis after upending his programme for the rest of the week, just ahead of June’s European elections.

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

The pro-independence FLNKS party said ahead of Macron’s arrival that roadblocks would be reinforced and “welcome committees” set up to greet the president, backed by the CCAT activist group that has organised protests against voting reform.

“It’s double or quits. It’s a bet,” said a presidential adviser, asking not to be named, while a member of parliament described the trip as a “poker move”.

Such was the last-minute nature of the voyage that a schedule for Macron was being drawn up during the 24-hour flight, without knowing who would be willing to meet him.

“This is absolute improvisation,” a source close to Macron said.

Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said the task force would remain in place “for as long as necessary... with a view to reaching an overall political agreement”.

Barricades rebuilt

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

French authorities sent more than 1,000 troops, police and other security reinforcements in a bid to quell the violence. But unrest has continued, though not on the scale of the early days.

New Caledonia is now dotted with burned-out vehicles, businesses and schools.

Kanak separatists, some masked and wielding homemade catapults, manned makeshift roadblocks including on the main route to the international airport, AFP correspondents said.

Security forces “clear barricades, but they’re rebuilt one after the other,” Mayor Sonia Lagarde said.

Police are holding 269 people in custody over the unrest gripping the territory of 270,000 people, Noumea prosecutor Yves Dupas said, while local government minister Dominique Faure said 86 police officers had been injured.

Burnt vehicles used as roadblocks. — AFP pic

Barricades

The CCAT said it would block major routes leading to the north of the island throughout the day on Thursday.

“I don’t know why our fate is being discussed by people who don’t even live here,” said Mike, a 52-year-old Kanak at a roadblock north of the capital, ahead of Macron’s arrival.

Armed locals, of French and other origins, have set up their own neighbourhood barricades.

Jean, a 57-year-old manning one of those barriers who also gave only his first name, said it was “good news” Macron was coming.

“The situation is totally stuck, we have to hope that this will allow people to calm down,” he said on the eve of the president’s arrival.

New Caledonia’s government also said telecom services had managed to stop an “unprecedented” mass email cyberattack on an internet provider for the territory.

Tourists trapped

Trapped tourists have begun to flee the turmoil.

Australia has repatriated 187 Australians and members of their families since Tuesday, senator Penny Wong posted on X, and New Zealand has evacuated citizens via the small Magenta airport.

Further flights will be organised until the main La Tontouta International Airport reopens to commercial flights, which the operator expects to happen on Saturday.

Many Kanaks, who make up about 40 per cent of the population, oppose the plan to extend voting rights to those who have lived in the territory for at least 10 years, which is widely backed by anti-independence representatives.

One option open to Macron would be to delay the voting rights bill, which has been approved by the lower house but still needs to be ratified by a congress of both French houses of parliament. — AFP

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