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New Caledonia unrest

Hundreds more French police start deploying to secure New Caledonia

Hundreds more French police start deploying to secure New Caledonia
Members of The Marseille Naval Fire Battalion board a plane of the French Air Force at Istres military airbase after France declared a state of emergency to regain control of events in New Caledonia, near Marseille, France, May 16, 2024. REUTERS/Manon Cruz

SYDNEY/PARIS, May 17 (Reuters) - French police reinforcements began arriving in New Caledonia on Friday in a massive push to regain control of the capital, the top French official in the Pacific island territory said, after rioting in which four people were killed and hundreds arrested.

After three nights of upheaval, Thursday night was relatively quiet and calls for calm were starting to be heeded, France’s High Commissioner Louis Le Franc said, although he added standoffs continued in parts of the capital city Noumea.

The unrest, sparked by anger among indigenous Kanak over a contested electoral reform, could complicate President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to increase French influence in the Pacific, a region where China and the U.S. are jostling for ascendancy.

Under the French reinforcement the number of police and gendarmes on the French-ruled island will rise to 2,700 from 1,700 by Friday evening.

“Reinforcements will arrive massively, immediately (and will be) deployed to control the areas which have escaped our control in recent days … to reconquer all the areas of the urban area which we have lost,” Le Franc told a televised press conference.

He said operations to supply food and medicine to the public will begin with teams, including specialists in mine clearing, removing road barricades that were booby trapped by activists.

The New Caledonia government said on Friday the island had stocks of food for two months and the problem was distribution.

“Our calls for calm, peace and reconciliation are beginning to be heard … It is important that those who are at the origin of the clashes, of the blockages, hear this,” Le Franc said.

Rioters angry with the electoral reform have burnt businesses, torched cars, looted shops and set up road barricades over three days, cutting off access to medicine and food, authorities said.

The new bill, adopted by lawmakers in Paris on Tuesday, will let French residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years vote in provincial elections. Some local leaders fear the move will dilute the indigenous Kanak vote.

RESUME TALKS?

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

FLNKS political bureau member Jimmy Naouna said it was encouraging that French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal had picked up the dossier.

A video call with Macron on Thursday was cancelled by a pro-independence coalition because they want France to first withdraw the electoral reform, and also rejected a July deadline given by Macron for a deal, he told Reuters.

“If we want to resume the talks for the new political agreement the French government, Macron, has to lift, suspend or withdraw this electoral reform bill,” he said.

“Give us time to hold talks in a more peaceful environment without this electoral reform above our head,” he added.

Naouna said protests in the north of the island were peaceful, with violence concentrated in the Noumea suburbs.

“This is the youth and it is really from the economic crisis, the nickel crisis and social crisis, everything together has made this situation blow up,” he said.

France has declared a state of emergency on the island, put at least 10 people under house arrest and banned TikTok.

Three young Kanak have died in the riots, and a 22-year-old police official died of a gunshot wound. Another police official died from an accidental gunshot while preparing to deploy.

France’s Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on Thursday police had arrested the person responsible for shooting two Kanaks; Le Franc said one perpetrator had surrendered and investigations were continuing into other murders.

The Pacific Conference of Churches on Friday joined regional inter-governmental groups in calling for France to withdraw the constitutional bill, and said the United Nations should lead a dialogue mission to New Caledonia.

In a statement, the churches said there had been a breakdown in dialogue between the French government and Kanak people.

Pacific Elders Voice, a group of former Pacific leaders, said decisions were being made in Paris without meaningful consultation and France should listen to “indigenous Kanak voices and the Pacific-wide support for self-determination”.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham in Sydney, Lucy Craymer in Wellington and Camille Raynaud, Juliette Jabkhiro in Paris; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Ingrid Melander, William Maclean)

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