France sends more police in bid to restore calm in New Caledonia

France sends more police in bid to restore calm in New Caledonia


Rioters angry with an electoral reform have burnt businesses

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

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, because they are literally shooting at each other, I've never seen this much violence," New Caledonia student Olivia Iloa said.

France declared a state of emergency in New Caledonia and went on to put at least 10 people under house arrest and ban TikTok.

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," Prime Minister Gabriel Attal told reporters.

President Emmanuel Macron "asked us to show the utmost firmness towards looters and rioters," Attal said, announcing a toughening of sanctions.

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 - a move some local leaders fear will dilute the indigenous Kanak vote.

"The truth is that at night you can't even try to go out," said Noumea resident Yoan Fleurot. "Caledonia will have a hard time recovering from this crisis."

Electoral reform is the latest flashpoint in a decades-long tussle over France's role in the mineral-rich southwest Pacific island, which lies some 1,500 km (930 miles) east of Australia.

Macron and his government have come under harsh criticism from the opposition and past prime ministers, who say they should not have pressed ahead with the reform.

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

"These events could have been avoided if the French government had listened," said Vanuatu's prime minister, Charlot Salwai, chairman of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, which also includes Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.

The French government says it has always been open to dialogue and 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.

But in a sign of how challenging that is, Macron cancelled plans to hold a video call with various political leaders from the island. Elysee sources said the leaders did not want to talk with each other, and Macron will have individual contacts with them instead.

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 and one in five residents live under the poverty threshold.


The protests were organised by Field Action Co-ordination Cell (CCAT), which was condemned by France's High Commissioner Louis Le Franc, who drew a distinction between CCAT and the major pro-independence political party, FLNKS, which has called for calm.

Armed forces were protecting New Caledonia's two airports and port, he said, adding that main and secondary roads in Noumea were blocked by barricades of burning cars and car carcasses, some rigged with booby traps.

There were also confrontations overnight between CCAT members and self-defence groups who are also in breach of the curfew and a weapons ban, he said.

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

In another twist to the crisis, Darmanin hinted at foreign interference, telling 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.