Updated May 23rd, 2024 at 16:00 IST

In Riot-Hit New Caledonia, French President Macron Says the Priority Is a Return to Calm

French President Emmanuel Macron said the police sent in to help battle deadly unrest in the French Pacific archipelago “will stay as long as necessary".

French President Emmanuel Macron gestures as he speaks with the press upon arrival at Noumea ñ La Tontouta International airport, in Noumea, New Caledonia, May 23, 2024. | Image:(Ludovic Marin/Pool Photo via AP)
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French President Emmanuel Macron pushed Thursday on a visit to riot-hit New Caledonia for the removal of protesters' barricades and said police sent in to help battle deadly unrest in the French Pacific archipelago “will stay as long as necessary," even as security services back in France focus in coming weeks on safeguarding the Paris Olympics.

By canceling his previously announced schedule to fly across the globe from Paris to New Caledonia, Macron brought the weight of his office to bear on the crisis, which has left six dead and a trail of destruction on the archipelago where Indigenous Kanak people have long sought independence from France.

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Pro-independence Kanak leaders, who a week earlier declined Macron's offer of talks by video, joined a meeting the French leader hosted in the capital, Nouméa, with rival pro-Paris leaders who want New Caledonia, which became French in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III, to remain part of France.

Macron first called for a minute of silence for the six people killed in shootings during the violence, including two gendarmes. He then urged local leaders to use their clout to help restore order. He said a state of emergency imposed by Paris for at least 12 days on May 15 to boost police powers could only be lifted if local leaders call for a clearing away of barricades that demonstrators and people trying to protect their neighborhoods have erected in Nouméa and beyond.

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French President Emmanuel Macron speaks as sits next to France's Minister for Interior and Overseas Gerald Darmanin, left, during a meeting with New Caledonia's elected officials at the French High Commissioner Louis Le Franc's residence in Noumea,New Caledonia, Thursday, May 23, 2024. (Ludovic Marin/Pool Photo via AP)

“Everyone has a responsibility to really call for the lifting of the barricades, the cessation of all forms of attack, not simply for calm," he said.

Barricades made up of charred vehicles and other debris have turned some parts of Nouméa into no-go zones and made traveling around perilous, including for the sick requiring medical treatment and for families fretting about where to find food and water after shops were pillaged and torched. French authorities say more than 280 people have been arrested since violence first flared May 13 as the French legislature in Paris debated contested changes to New Caledonia voter lists.

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The unrest continued to simmer as Macron jetted in, despite a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew and more than 1,000 reinforcements for the archipelago's police and gendarmes, now 3,000 strong.

“I will be very clear here. These forces will remain as long as necessary. Even during the Olympic Games and Paralympics," which open in Paris on July 26, Macron said.

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It was late Tuesday in Paris when he left on the 16,000-kilometer (10,000-mile) trip but, because of the distance and time difference, it was Thursday morning in New Caledonia when he arrived with his interior and defense ministers.

At Nouméa's La Tontouta International Airport, which remains closed to commercial flights, Macron said on arrival that he wanted "to be alongside the people and see a return to peace, calm and security as soon as possible.”

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Later, at Nouméa's central police station, Macron thanked officers for facing what he described as “an absolutely unprecedented insurrection movement."

French President Emmanuel Macron gestures as he speaks with the press upon arrival at Noumea ñ La Tontouta International airport, in Noumea, New Caledonia, Thursday, May 23, 2024. (Ludovic Marin/Pool Photo via AP)

“No one saw it coming with this level of organization and violence,” he said. “You did your duty. And I thank you.”

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The violence is the severest in New Caledonia since the 1980s, the last time France imposed a state of emergency on the archipelago of 270,000 people and decades of tensions over the issue of independence between Kanaks and the descendants of colonists and other settlers.

Fires, looting and other violence targeting hundreds of businesses, homes, stores, public buildings and other sites in and around Nouméa have caused destruction estimated in the hundreds of millions of euros (dollars). This week, military flights evacuated stranded tourists.

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“We will discuss questions of economic reconstruction, support and rapid response, and the most delicate political questions, as we talk about the future of New Caledonia,” Macron said. “By the end of the day, decisions will be taken and announcements will be made.”

When asked by a reporter whether he thought a 12-hour visit was enough, Macron responded: “We will see. I don’t have a limit.”

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Macron flew to the archipelago under pressure from politicians in France and pro-independence supporters to delay or scrap the overhaul of the voting system for New Caledonia which triggered the unrest. Both French houses of parliament in Paris have approved the proposed reform but it requires a revision of France’s Constitution to take effect. It would enlarge voter numbers in provincial elections for New Caledonia's legislature and government, adding about 25,000 voters, including people who have been residents of the archipelago for at least 10 years and others born there.

Opponents fear the measure will benefit pro-France politicians in New Caledonia and further marginalize the Kanaks, who once suffered from strict segregation policies and widespread discrimination. Supporters say the proposed overhaul is democratically important for people with roots in New Caledonia who can't currently vote for local representatives.

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Macron in the past has facilitated dialogue between the divided pro- and anti-independence camps. France's efforts included three referendums from 2018 to 2021 which asked voters if they wanted independence. They voted no each time, but the last referendum in 2021 was boycotted by pro-independence forces.

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Published May 23rd, 2024 at 16:00 IST