French troops try to restore order in crisis-hit New Caledonia

AFP , Saturday 18 May 2024

Hundreds of French security personnel tried to restore order in the Pacific territory of New Caledonia on Saturday, after a fifth night of riots, looting and unrest.

People wait in line to buy provisions from a supermarket along a street blocked by debris and burnt
People wait in line to buy provisions from a supermarket along a street blocked by debris and burnt-out items following overnight unrest in the Magenta district of Noumea, France s Pacific territory of New Caledonia, on May 18, 2024. AFP

 

Bands of heavily armed French marines and police patrolled the capital Noumea, where streets were filled with debris from another night of violence that had already killed five people and injured hundreds.

AFP reporters in the city's Magenta district saw vehicles and buildings burned, with a phalanx of riot police on the scene trying to reassert government control.

Overnight, residents reported hearing gunfire, the drone of helicopter rotors and "massive explosions" -- what seemed to be gas canisters blowing up inside a building that was set alight.

For days Helene, aged 42, has been manning makeshift barricades with neighbours, taking two-to-three-hour shifts as they wait for thousands of French security forces being flown 17,000 kilometres (10,600 miles) to impose order.

"At night we hear shooting, and things going off," she told AFP. "Helicopters, and army planes landing -- which is sweet music to our ears."

For almost a week, the usually unhurried oceanside city has been convulsed.

Two gendarmes have been killed: one shot in the head and a second shot in friendly fire, officials said.

Three other people -- all Indigenous Kanaks -- have also been killed: a 17-year-old and two men aged 20 and 36.

The unrest has been blamed on economic malaise, social tensions and -- above all -- a political fight between mostly Indigenous pro-independence activists and Paris authorities.

French officials have accused a separatist group known as CCAT of being behind the riots.

Ten activists accused of organising the violence have been placed under house arrest, according to authorities.

The territory is "on a destructive path" warned local minister Vaimu'a Muliava Saturday, telling those involved "you are only punishing yourselves."

CCAT on Friday called for "a time of calm to break the spiral of violence".

Despite that appeal, 81-year-old Noumea resident Annie also reported hearing loud explosions during the night.

She said the week's violence was worse than that seen during the tumultuous 1980s, a time of political killings and hostage-taking euphemistically referred to as "The Events".

"It's worse than during The Events," she said. "At the time, there weren't as many weapons."

'Out of our hands'
 

New Caledonia has been French territory since colonisation in the late 1800s.

Centuries on, politics remains dominated by debate about whether the islands should be part of France, autonomous or independent -- with opinions split roughly along ethnic lines.

The latest cycle of violence was sparked by plans in Paris to impose new voting rules that could give tens of thousands of non-Indigenous residents voting rights.

Pro-independence groups say that would dilute the vote of Indigenous Kanaks, who make up about 40 per cent of the population.

French authorities have called for talks and insist the situation is now "calmer" and being brought under control.

"Reinforcements will control areas that have got out of our hands in recent days," said high commissioner Louis Le Franc, the highest-ranking state official in New Caledonia.

They began landing Thursday at the French army-controlled La Tontouta International Airport and could be seen moving through Noumea in red berets, toting rifles, gas masks and riot shields.

French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said Thursday that about 1,000 extra security forces were being deployed -- adding to the 1,700 already present.

Efforts to negotiate peace have so far stumbled.

President Emmanuel Macron cancelled a video conference with local political leaders Thursday for lack of willing participants, but began contacting pro- and anti-independence officials individually on Friday, his office said.

Low supplies
 

Meanwhile, in Noumea, hundreds of people lined up outside shops, hoping to secure desperately needed food and supplies.

"Do your shopping in 10 minutes, to allow everyone to get supplies!" said one attendant ushering customers into a supermarket in Magenta on Saturday.

Helene said the economic situation had become more fraught in recent years and the week's unrest would only make things worse.

"A lot of people are leaving, work is getting scarce. It's not the expats, or people who have big businesses here who are at risk. It's mostly the people who don't have much already," she said.

"It's going to take a few years to rebuild everything".

A local business group estimated the damage, concentrated around Noumea, at 200 million euros ($217 million).

The damage to the islands' reputation may cost even more.

Tourism is a big earner for New Caledonia, but an estimated 3,200 tourists and other travellers have been stranded inside or outside the archipelago by the closure of Noumea's international airport.

Australian painting business owner Nicholas Agustin, 36, landed in the capital with his girlfriend last week, hoping to enjoy sightseeing and island exploring.

"We saw men on the streets with balaclavas and big sticks. There was smoke in the city," he said.

On Friday, a French government agency, Viginum, said it detected a "massive and coordinated" online campaign pushing claims that French police had shot pro-independence demonstrators in New Caledonia.

The government pointed to the involvement of "Azerbaijani actors" in the campaign, deepening a diplomatic spat between the two countries.

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