Published: 13:00, May 17, 2024 | Updated: 10:39, May 17, 2024
France sends more police to New Caledonia to try to restore calm
By Reuters
Demonstrators hold Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) flags during a gathering in Paris, May 16, 2024. (PHOTO / AP)

SYDNEY/PARIS - The French government sent more police to the Pacific island of New Caledonia on Thursday and said it would crack down on rioters, hoping to restore order after three nights of upheaval in which four people have been killed.

Rioters angry with an electoral reform have burnt businesses, torched cars, looted shops and set up road barricades, causing a "dire situation" for access to medicine and food in the French-ruled Pacific island, authorities said.

"Everything's burning, people have literally no limits," New Caledonia student Olivia Iloa said.

France has declared a state of emergency on the island, put at least 10 people under house arrest and banned TikTok.

President Emmanuel Macron cancelled a planned video call with political leaders from the island because leaders did not want to talk to each other, Elysee sources said

Numbers of police and gendarmes in New Caledonia will rise from 1,700 to 2,700 by Friday evening, with a small number of soldiers assisting.

"The situation in New Caledonia remains very tense, with looting, riots, fires, attacks which are unbearable," French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal told reporters.

France will "show the utmost firmness towards looters and rioters" and toughen sanctions, he said.

Rioting erupted over a new bill, adopted by lawmakers in Paris on Tuesday, that will let French residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years vote in provincial elections. Some local leaders fear the move will dilute the indigenous Kanak vote.

Electoral reform is the latest flashpoint in a decades-long tussle over France's role in the mineral-producing southwest Pacific island some 1,500 km east of Australia.

The government in Paris repeated past mistakes by not heeding warnings over the reform, said Dominique Fochi, secretary general of the Caledonian Union, a branch of the pro-independence FLNKS party which has called for calm but wants the reform shelved.

"We spoke in the void, and now things have exploded," Fochi told Reuters.

France annexed New Caledonia in 1853 and gave the colony the status of overseas territory in 1946. New Caledonia is the world's No. 3 nickel miner but its nickel industry is in crisis. Economic disparities also fueled the riots, said Fochi.

'Destroyed'

Attal said the French government would step in to help mitigate the economic impact of the crisis. The local chamber of commerce has estimated the cost of damage caused by the riots at 200 million euros ($217 million), broadcaster NC La 1ère said.

"Caledonia will have a hard time recovering from this crisis... Everything, 80 percent, is destroyed," said Noumea resident Yoan Fleurot, who has witnessed looting.

Armed forces were protecting New Caledonia's two airports and port, said France's High Commissioner Louis Le Franc, adding roads in Noumea were blocked by barricades of burning cars and car carcasses, some rigged with booby traps.

There were also confrontations overnight between members of Field Action Co-ordination Cell (CCAT), which organized the protests, and self-defense groups, he said.

Three young Kanaks have been killed in the riots, and a 22-year-old police official died after being shot in the head as he was talking to protesters, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said. Another gendarme was killed in an accidental shooting while preparing to deploy.

New Caledonia's Pacific neighbors called for a return to dialogue and for the electoral reform to be cancelled.

"These events could have been avoided if the French government had listened," said Vanuatu's prime minister, Charlot Salwai.

The French government says it wants to meet pro- and anti-independence leaders soon in Paris. It has opened the door to suspending the reform bill if there is a new deal soon on the future of the island.

President Emmanuel Macron cancelled a planned video call with political leaders from the island because leaders did not want to talk to each other, Elysee sources said.

France's foreign ministry will brief officials from several countries on the crisis, according to an invitation seen by Reuters.

Hinting at foreign interference, Darmanin told France 2 TV "some independence leaders had made a deal with Azerbaijan," a country with whom France's relationship has deteriorated over Paris' support for Armenia.

He gave no evidence, and Azerbaijan's foreign ministry swiftly denied what it called insulting allegations.