June 16th, 2024

In riot-hit New Caledonia, French President Macron says priority is return to calm amid unrest

By Claire Rush And John Leicester, The Associated Press on May 22, 2024.

FILE - Smoke rises during protests in Noumea, New Caledonia, Wednesday May 15, 2024. Using backhoes to shove aside charred vehicles, French security forces worked Sunday, May 19, 2024, to retake control of the highway to the international airport in violence-scorched New Caledonia, shuttered because of deadly unrest wracking the French South Pacific island where indigenous people have long sought independence from France. (AP Photo/Nicolas Job, File)

PARIS – President Emmanuel Macron arrived Thursday in riot-hit New Caledonia, having crossed the globe by plane in a high-profile show of support for the French Pacific archipelago wracked by deadly unrest and where Indigenous people have long sought independence from France.

Macron, who briefly spoke to reporters after his arrival at La Tontouta International Airport, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the New Caledonian capital of Noumea, said he viewed a return to calm as the top priority.

“My wish here, along with that of my ministers and the government, is to be alongside the people and see a return to peace, calm and security as soon as possible,” he said.

Macron said he plans to meet with local officials and discuss the resources needed to repair the damage wrought by days of shootings, arson and other violence that has left at least six dead and a broad trail of destruction estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of euros (dollars).

“We will discuss questions of economic reconstruction, support and rapid response, and the most delicate political questions, as we talk about the future of New Caledonia,” he said. “By the end of the day, decisions will be taken and announcements will be made.”

When asked by a reporter whether he thought a 12-hour visit was enough, Macron responded: “We will see. I don’t have a limit.”

The president scrapped his previously announced schedule to make the journey of some 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) himself, spurred by the most severe violence to hit New Caledonia since the 1980s. The lightning visit, expected to last just one day, will allow him to see the destruction first-hand.

He is expected to push for local leaders bitterly divided by the issue of independence to resume talks, and to thank French security forces that have been seeking to restore order. More than 1,000 reinforcements have been rushed in and a state of emergency was declared last week from Paris to boost their powers.

It was late Tuesday in Paris when he climbed aboard his presidential jet but, because of the distance and time difference, it was already Thursday morning in New Caledonia when he arrived, with unrest still simmering and his interior and defense ministers in tow.

The violence erupted May 13 as the French legislature in Paris debated amending the French Constitution to make changes to New Caledonia voter lists. Opponents fear the measure will benefit pro-France politicians in New Caledonia and further marginalize the Kanaks, who once suffered from strict segregation policies and widespread discrimination.

There have been decades of tensions between the Kanaks and descendants of colonists and others who settled in the territory of 270,000 people and want to remain part of France.

Macron, in the past, has facilitated dialogue in New Caledonia between pro-independence and pro-France factions. The efforts culminated in a 2018 referendum, the first of three, in which New Caledonians voted to remain part of France by a narrow margin.

At least six people have died in the violence, including four civilians and two gendarmes. The New Caledonia High Commission said more than 280 people have been arrested and 84 police officers and gendarmes have been injured. It was not clear how many civilians were injured.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu and Overseas Territories Minister Marie Guevenoux accompanied Macron on the trip.

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Associated Press writers Rod McGuirk in Melbourne, Australia, and Thomas Adamson in Paris contributed to this report.

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