June 16, 2024

France’s Macron urges calm in riot-hit New Caledonia

France’s president made a long-haul trip to the restive Pacific territory of New Caledonia on Thursday, urging a “return to peace” after deadly rioting, and vowing thousands of military reinforcements will be deployed for “as long as necessary” to quell the “unprecedented insurrection”.

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 he wanted to ensure that “as quickly as possible there will be a return to peace, calm, security”.

“That is the absolute priority,” Macron added, ahead of a day of intensive meetings with local leaders.

He is 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.

“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 separatist roadblock north of the capital, on the eve of Macron’s visit. 

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.

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