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

AFP
Friday, May 24, 2024

NOUMEA: 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”.

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.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.

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.