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France's Macron calls fresh emergency meeting on New Caledonia

Published May 20,2024
French President Emmanuel Macron called a meeting of his defence and security council for Monday to discuss the deadly unrest in the Pacific territory of New Caledonia.

It is the third such meeting in less than week, the previous two having resulted first in the decision to declare a state of emergency in the French territory and then to send reinforcements to help government forces on the ground restore order.

On Friday, Prime Minister Gabriel Attal met leaders of the parliamentary parties to discuss the crisis, in particular whether or not to extend the state of emergency beyond its initial 12 days.

That would require the approval of both the lower house National Assembly and the upper house Senate.

In New Caledonia on Sunday, French forces smashed through dozens of barricades in a bid to retake the main road to the archipelago's airport.

"Republican order will be re-established whatever the cost," French government high commissioner Louis Le Franc told reporters in Noumea.

If separatists "want to use their arms, they will be risking the worst", he warned.

New Caledonia, with a population of about 270,000, has been convulsed by unrest since Monday, sparked by French plans to impose new rules that would give tens of thousands of non-Indigenous residents voting rights.

The French territory off northeastern Australia has long been riven by pro-independence tensions, but this is the worst violence in decades.

Protesters have set vehicles, businesses and public buildings alight and taken control of the main road to La Tontouta International Airport, which has been forced to close to commercial flights.

'Short of food'

Authorities say about 230 people have been detained while an estimated 3,200 people are either stuck in New Caledonia or unable to return to the archipelago.

France says about 1,000 additional security force members have been sent to the islands.

Some 600 heavily armed police and paramilitaries on Sunday took part in an operation to retake the 60-kilometre (40-mile) main road from the capital Noumea to the airport, authorities said.

Forces with armoured vehicles and construction equipment destroyed 76 roadblocks, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin posted on X, formerly Twitter.

"The police came through, they cleared the road, and we stood aside. We're pacifists," said Jean-Charles, a man in his 50s wearing a scarf around his head and carrying a Kanak independence flag, a few kilometres outside the airport.

"Once they were gone, we put the roadblock back up," he added.

The highway is needed to restore supply chains as the archipelago faces shortages of items from groceries to blood for transfusions. "We are starting to run short of food," Le Franc said.

'This will end'

An overnight curfew, state of emergency, ban on TikTok and reinforcements all failed to prevent more unrest from overnight Saturday to Sunday.

Groups set two fires and raided a petrol station, Le Franc's office said, as well as destroying schools, pharmacies and supermarkets.

The local government said schools would be closed until Friday. But authorities insisted the situation is improving.

Le Franc said security forces would stage "harassment" raids to reclaim other parts of the territory held by pro-independence groups.

"This will all come to an end, believe me," Le Franc added.

In Wellington, Foreign Minister Winston Peters said the New Zealand military had "completed preparations" for repatriation flights.

Australian tourist Maxwell Winchester and his wife Tiffany were barricaded in a resort on the airport road for days after they were supposed to leave Noumea.

"Every night we had to sleep with one eye open... worried that they were coming in to loot us," he said. "This morning at an exit near here, the gendarmerie was coming through and there was a shootout."

'Prevent civil war'

New Caledonia has been a French territory since the mid-1800s.

Almost two centuries on, its politics remain dominated by debate about whether the islands should be part of France, autonomous or independent -- with opinions split roughly along ethnic lines.

Indigenous Kanaks make up about 39 percent of the population but tend to be poorer and have fewer years of schooling than European Caledonians. Kanak groups say the latest voting regulations would dilute the Indigenous vote.

The presidents of four other French overseas territories -- La Reunion in the Indian Ocean, Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean and French Guiana in South America -- on Sunday called for the withdrawal of the voting reform in an open letter.

Civil liberties groups have challenged the TikTok ban, with an emergency hearing scheduled at France's top administrative court in Paris for Tuesday.