Published: 11:28, May 23, 2024 | Updated: 13:09, May 23, 2024
Macron arrives in riot-hit New Caledonia for high-stakes talks
By Reuters
French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a meeting with New Caledonia's elected officials and local representatives at the French High Commissioner Louis Le Franc's residence in Noumea, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia on May 23, 2024. (PHOTO / AFP)

SYDNEY/PARIS - President Emmanuel Macron said police reinforcements in New Caledonia would remain as long as required, after viewing areas worst hit by deadly riots in the French-ruled Pacific island triggered by a contested electoral reform.

Macron's hastily arranged visit to New Caledonia on Thursday comes after six people were killed in riots that have left a trail of looted shops and 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 capital Noumea.

With the island under a state of emergency, Macron said additional security totalling 3,000 personnel would remain, even during the Paris Olympics if required

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

Macron earlier flew by helicopter over areas devastated by arson, with bulldozers working 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.

With the island under a state of emergency, Macron said additional security totalling 3,000 personnel would remain, even during the Paris Olympics if required.

"I personally believe that the state of emergency should not be extended," he said, adding it would be lifted only when protesters remove the roadblocks.

ALSO READ: New Caledonia riots: Tourists evacuated, French President Macron to visit

Protesters fear the electoral reform, already passed by lawmakers in mainland France some 16,000 km away, will dilute the votes of indigenous Kanaks, who make up 40 percent of the island's population of 270,000 people, and make it harder for any future referendum on independence to pass.

As it is a constitutional reform, it requires a meeting of both houses of parliament for it to be ratified and Macron has yet to announce a date for that.

French President Emmanuel Macron (center) meets with New Caledonia's elected officials and local representatives at the French High Commissioner Louis Le Franc's residence in Noumea, New Caledonia, on May 23, 2024. (PHOTO / AP)

Peace top priority

Indigenous Kanak political leaders meeting with Macron included the president of New Caledonia's government, Louis Mapou, and the president of its Congress, Roch Wamytan, who was a signatory to a 1998 Noumea Accord that ended a decade of violence by outlining a path to gradual autonomy

Indigenous Kanak political leaders meeting with Macron included the president of New Caledonia's government, Louis Mapou, and the president of its Congress, Roch Wamytan, who was a signatory to a 1998 Noumea Accord that ended a decade of violence by outlining a path to gradual autonomy.

The expiry of the accord in 2021 and a Kanak boycott of an independence referendum held during the COVID-19 pandemic has since created a political impasse.

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

ALSO READ: Australia, New Zealand send evacuation flights to New Caledonia

Macron said the aim of the meeting, which also includes 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," said Macron, who told reporters a return to peace and security were the top priorities of his trip.

A road block is pictured in Noumea, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia on May 23, 2024. (PHOTO / AFP)

Aides say Macron has no pre-conceived plan and will talk with all parties about reconstruction in the wake of the riots, as well as politics, but is unlikely to rush any major decision.

This may disappoint some local groups, including FLNKS, who want Macron to shelve the electoral reform that Paris says is needed to improve democracy on the island. The Noumea Accord had frozen electoral rolls, and the reform would allow thousands more French residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years to vote in provincial elections.

FLNKS said Macron must also allow more time for a political agreement on the future of the island to be discussed.

France annexed New Caledonia in 1853 and gave the colony the status of overseas territory in 1946. It is the world's No. 3 nickel miner but the sector is in crisis and one in five residents lives below the poverty threshold.

READ MORE: Protestors block New Caledonia roads as French police pour in

Thousands of tourists have been stranded by the unrest, with France, Australia and New Zealand organizing flights to extract hundreds of people.