World News

French President Emmanuel Macron heads to riot-hit New Caledonia

French President Emmanuel Macron will travel to the Pacific island of New Caledonia late on Tuesday, his office said, just over a week after riots erupted in the French overseas territory, killing six.

Australia and New Zealand were evacuating tourists from the island as the violence left a trail of destruction with looted shops, torched cars and road barricades restricting access to medicine and food.

The protests were sparked by anger among indigenous Kanak people over constitutional reform approved in Paris that would change who is allowed to take part in elections. Local leaders fear the change will dilute the Kanak vote.

Macron will meet elected officials and local representatives on Thursday for a day of talks focused on politics and on the reconstruction of the island, aides said.

Macron “will discuss with all the forces in New Caledonia”, French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said. “The objective is to … prepare and anticipate reconstruction.”

“The president is also going there to re-establish dialogue,” Attal said.Initial reaction showed renewing dialogue will not be an easy task, all the more so as pro-independence leaders blame the riots on Macron pushing through the electoral reform despite local opposition.

“Here comes the fireman after he set the fire!” Jimmy Naouna, from the Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) of New Caledonia, wrote on X in response to news of Macron’s visit.

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 the sector is in crisis and one-in-five residents live below the poverty threshold.

The island lies some 20 000 km (12 430 miles) away from mainland France, and some 1 500 km (930 miles) east of Australia. It has longed been rocked by pro-independence movements. The past week’s violence has been the worst there in 40 years.

The opposition in Paris, former French prime ministers, and leaders of other Pacific islands have also said Macron should scrap or suspend the electoral reform, which parliament in Paris adopted last Tuesday.

Vanuatu Foreign Minister Matai Seremaiah urged France to “do the right thing, to resolve all outstanding decolonisation issues” and seriously engage with Kanak leaders.

Some 108 Australians and other tourists landed in Brisbane on two government flights, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said on X. A Defence Force plane landed in Auckland with some 50 people on board, the New Zealand Herald reported.

More flights were expected in coming days to evacuate some 500 French and foreign tourists in total, France’s High Commission in New Caledonia said.

As she arrived in Brisbane, Australian tourist Mary Hatten said she had been largely confined to her hotel. “The place was just in a mess,” she told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Chris Salmon, who works in the mining industry in New Caledonia, hugged his family and said he was relieved to have left the French island. “It feels all pretty awful, pretty senseless,” he said.

The airport, shut since the start of the riots, remained closed for commercial flights.

Around 3 200 people were waiting to leave or enter New Caledonia after commercial flights were cancelled last week due to the unrest, the local government has said.

Australian officials said passengers were being prioritised based on need. Those left behind were frustrated, said Australian Benen Huntley, honeymooning with wife Emily.

“My wife is quite upset, we just want to get home,” he said in a telephone interview. “We opened our hotel door this morning and you could just see an enormous billow of smoke coming off a building in the distance.”

More than 1 000 gendarmes and police from France were on patrol and another 600 would be added, France’s High Commission said.

Three of the six people killed in the unrest were young Kanaks shot by armed civilians, and there have been confrontations between Kanak protesters and armed self-defence groups or civilian militias formed to protect themselves.

“The French government doesn’t know how to control people here,” said Viro Xulue, part of a community group providing social assistance to other Kanaks.

The situation on the ground was improving but much more needed to be done, French government spokesperson Prisca Thevenot said.

Source: BBC

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