Unprecedented insurrection in New Caledonia, Macron says

French president says additional security totalling 3,000 personnel will remain on the French-Pacific territory, even during this summer’s Paris Olympics if required

Kirsty Needham
Thursday 23 May 2024 16:00
French president Emmanuel Macron arrives at the central police station in Noumea
French president Emmanuel Macron arrives at the central police station in Noumea (Reuters)

Police reinforcements in New Caledonia will stay as long as needed, president Emmanuel Macron has said after viewing areas devastated by deadly riots triggered by a contested electoral reform in the French-ruled Pacific island.

Describing the riots as “an unprecedented insurrection whose degree of violence no one would have anticipated”, Mr Macron said additional security totalling 3,000 personnel would remain, even during this summer’s Paris Olympics if required.

Mr Macron’s hastily arranged visit comes after six people were killed in riots that have left a trail of looted shops, torched cars and businesses since they began more than a week ago.

“In the coming hours and days, massive new operations will be scheduled where necessary, and republican order in its entirety will be re-established because there is no other choice,” Macron said during a meeting with political and business leaders in the territory’s capital Noumea.

Roads across the island remained blocked by protester barricades, and residents shared advice on social media on safe routes to find food, petrol and medicine.

Mr Macron had flown by helicopter over areas wrecked by arson, as bulldozers worked to clear away rubble. Mayors from these worst-hit suburbs joined Macron’s meeting at France’s High Commission, along with pro-French and pro-independence leaders.

Beyond security, the key question was regarding the contentious electoral reform. It would allow thousands more French residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years to vote, which Paris says is needed to improve democracy on the island, where almost a quarter of the population identifies as European, mainly French.

Protesters at a separatist roadblock in the French territory of New Caledonia on Wednesday
Protesters at a separatist roadblock in the French territory of New Caledonia on Wednesday (MMIIAS/ABACA/Shutterstock)

Leaders of the indigenous Kanaks who form the largest community – 40 per cent – want the reform rescinded over fears it will dilute the Kanak vote and make it harder for any future referendum on independence to pass.

Other local leaders want the reform to be suspended to give time for a broader dialogue over the future of the island.

Electoral rolls were frozen by the 1998 Noumea Accord that ended a decade of violence by outlining a path to gradual autonomy. But the pact’s expiry in 2021, and a Kanak boycott of an independence referendum held during the Covid-19 pandemic, led to a political impasse.

Mr Macron said later on Thursday that he had decided to push back plans to reform the voting laws by several weeks. However he added that he won’t allow the result of the last referendum on New Caledonia's independence, in which citizens voted to remain part of France, to be called into question.

Kanak political leaders meeting with Mr Macron before that announcement included the president of New Caledonia’s government, Louis Mapou, and the president of its Congress, Roch Wamytan, who was a signatory to the Noumea Accord.

Macron visits the central police station in Noumea
Macron visits the central police station in Noumea (Reuters)

Before the meeting, the pro-independence Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) bloc issued a statement saying it expected Mr Macron to make a strong announcement that could “breathe new life” into dialogue.

Mr Macron said the aim of the meeting, which included French loyalist politicians such as Sonia Backes, was to get all parties back around the table.

“Calming down cannot mean turning back the clock. Calming down cannot mean disregarding the popular expression that has already taken place,” Mr Macron said.

Coming out of the meeting with Mr Macron, Georges Naturel, a New Caledonian representative in France’s senate and the mayor of Dumbea where stores were set on fire, said the society needed to rebuild in a different way.

Mr Macron had told the meeting more security forces are coming.

“We are all convinced that this will not be enough. We also need strong, political messages,” said Naturel, who belongs to the conservative Les Republicains party.

New Caledonia is the world’s number three nickel miner but the sector is in crisis and one in five residents lives below the poverty threshold in a territory with huge economic inequalities.


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