May 27th, 2024

France imposes emergency in Pacific territory of New Caledonia as violent unrest turns deadly

By Barbara Surk And John Leicester, The Associated Press on May 15, 2024.

FILE - French gendarme patrol at a roundabout in Noumea, New Caledonia, Sunday Dec.12, 2021. At least two people were killed and three were seriously injured overnight in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia, French officials there said Wednesday, May 15, 2024, as President Emmanuel Macron convened a meeting of top ministers to discuss the spiraling violence. (AP Photo/Clotilde Richalet, File)

PARIS (AP) – The French government announced Wednesday it will impose a state of emergency in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia for at least 12 days, boosting police powers in an attempt to quell deadly unrest that has left four people dead.

French government spokeswoman Prisca Thevenot announced the decision after a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday afternoon in Paris. It follows days of unrest in the Pacific territory and what Thevenot described as “scenes of chaos,” with four deaths reported, including a member of the security services.

The emergency measures will give authorities greater powers to tackle the unrest, including the possibility of house detention for people deemed a threat to public order in the territory, where pro-independence supporters have long pushed to break free from France.

“The priority is to restore order, calm, serenity,” the spokeswoman said.

The emergency will go into force at 8 p.m. Paris time on Wednesday night, which is 5 a.m in New Caledonia.

More than 300 people have been injured since Monday, when protests over voting changes pushed by Paris turned violent. There have also been more than 130 arrests, French authorities said.

There have been decades of tensions on the archipelago between Indigenous Kanaks seeking independence and descendants of colonizers who want to remain part of France.

Police reinforcements were being rushed in to the territory to help security forces that have battled violent protesters. The Interior Ministry said 500 additional officers were expected within hours on the archipelago to bolster 1,800 police and gendarmes already there.

This week’s unrest erupted as the French legislature in Paris debated amending the French constitution to make changes to voter lists in New Caledonia. The National Assembly on Wednesday approved a bill that will, among other changes, allow residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years to cast ballots in provincial elections.

Opponents say the measure will benefit pro-France politicians in New Caledonia and further marginalize indigenous Kanak people. They once suffered from strict segregation policies and widespread discrimination. The vast archipelago of about 270,000 people east of Australia is 10 time zones ahead of Paris.

France’s government made repeated calls Wednesday for an end to the violence.

The territory’s top French official, High Commissioner Louis Le Franc, warned of the possibility of “many deaths” if calm isn’t restored. A police station was among dozens of places that were attacked, with shots fired, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said. Posting on X, he said a gendarme who had been shot was among the dead.

In Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron emphasized the need for political dialogue. Rival political parties in New Caledonia also jointly called for calm, saying in a statement: “We have to continue to live together.”

An overnight curfew in New Caledonia was extended to Thursday. Schools and the main airport remained closed, Le Franc said.

“The situation is not serious, it is very serious,” Le Franc said. “We have entered a dangerous spiral, a deadly spiral.”

He said some residents in the capital and neighboring municipalities formed “self-defense groups” to protect their homes and businesses.

New Caledonia became French in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III, Napoleon’s nephew and heir. It became an overseas territory after World War II, with French citizenship granted to all Kanaks in 1957.

A peace deal between rival factions was reached in 1988. A decade later, France promised to grant New Caledonia political power and broad autonomy and hold up to three successive referendums.

The three referendums were organized between 2018 to 2021 and a majority of voters chose to remain part of France instead of backing independence. The pro-independence Kanak people rejected the results of the last referendum in 2021, which they boycotted because it was held at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Barbara Surk reported from Nice.

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