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29 May 2024 17:57
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  •   Home > News > International

    Three people killed in New Caledonia protests as France calls for calm in the Pacific territory

    Three people have been killed as violent protests and looting rock New Caledonia, according to an official of the French Pacific territory.


    Three people have been killed in unrest in New Caledonia, an official said, as rioting continued and shops and schools remained shut after France's National Assembly approved changes to voting rules in the Pacific island.

    The three dead were young Indigenous Kanak, said a spokesman for New Caledonia's president Louis Mapou.

    He said the information was provided by police.

    Rioting broke out this week before politicians in Paris voted on a bill to allow French residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years to vote in provincial elections — a move some local leaders fear will dilute the Kanak vote.

    France's President Emmanuel Macron and New Caledonia's President Louis Mapou have called for calm and dialogue.

    Mr Macron will chair a meeting on Wednesday local time to discuss the unfolding crisis.

    Several French politicians have urged him to declare a state of emergency.

    French officials said one person had been found shot dead in an industrial zone, with High Commissioner Louis le Franc saying the shot did not come from police but "from someone who probably was defending himself".

    The French government said the change in voting rules, which politicians backed by 351 to 153, was needed so elections would be democratic in the country's territory.

    Mr Macron has offered to hold dialogue between New Caledonia's pro- and anti-independence camps before a special congress of the two houses of parliament rubber-stamps the bill.

    The major pro-independence political group, Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS), said in a statement on Wednesday it would accept Mr Macron's offer of dialogue and was willing to work toward an agreement "that would allow New Caledonia to follow its path toward emancipation".

    Cars, buildings set ablaze in Noumea

    On Wednesday morning, Lilou Garrido Navarro Kherachi, 19, drove around protester blockades in Noumea and saw burning cars and buildings, including a ruined veterinary clinic where the neighbours had evacuated the animals before the fire spread.

    Police were outnumbered by protesters, she told Reuters.

    "The real problem is the youngsters who trash, burn and loot. We didn't see any police deployed on site," she said.

    High Commissioner of the Republic Louis Le Franc described the unrest as "insurrectional".

    "This is a time for appeasement … it is essential to call for calm."

    He said there were "shotgun exchanges between rioters and civil defence groups" in the capital Noumea.

    There was also an attempt to storm a gendarmes station.

    France has sent extra police squadrons to quell riots on New Caledonia after the French Pacific archipelago was rocked by a night of rioting against a controversial voting reform that has angered pro-independence forces.

    Shots were fired at security forces, vehicles torched and shops looted in the rioting — the worst such violence in New Caledonia since deadly unrest in the 1980s.

    More than 140 people have been arrested, according to the French high commission of the republic in New Caledonia.

    Kanak journalist Andre Qaeze said the situation remained tense in Noumea.

    "The French government, they are very specialised. They have the means, they have guns, they have the cars."

    "This evening, there is a plane which will arrive from Paris with soldiers, they are arriving to help the police forces to try to stop all this violence."

    Authorities announced a night-time curfew on Tuesday and a ban on public gatherings, while the main airport was closed.

    Despite the curfew, violence continued on Tuesday evening. 

    One business group said about 30 shops, factories and other sites in and around Noumea had been set ablaze, while an AFP journalist saw burned-out cars and smoking remains of tyres and wooden pallets littering the streets.

    "We are at home. We cannot take our cars and go to our jobs because of the barriers they put on the road," Qaeze said. 

    From late Monday night, groups of young masked or hooded demonstrators took over several roundabouts and confronted police, who responded with non-lethal rounds.

    Noumea was covered by a cloud of black smoke and a local sports facility had been set ablaze, according to local television. 

    New Caledonia, which lies between Australia and Fiji, is one of several French territories spanning the globe from the Caribbean and Indian Ocean to the Pacific that remain part of France in the post-colonial era.

    While it has on three occasions rejected independence in referendums, independence retains support, particularly among the Indigenous Kanak people.

    The federal government said it was monitoring the situation closely and advised Australian travellers to exercise a "high degree of caution" in Noumea and avoid demonstrations and public gatherings. 

    Pro-independence protests

    At a rally in Paris, pro-independence protesters said the bill should be withdrawn.

    "If there is violence today [in New Caledonia], it's in response to the violence we've suffered from since colonisation," Kanak youth leader Daniel Wea, 43, told Reuters, saying the planned electoral changes would leave the Kanaks isolated on their island.

    "We're here to show … we will fight until we get what we want: independence," said Wendy Gowe, 24, whose grandfathers died when violence flared up on the island in the 1980s.

    New Caledonia became a French overseas territory in 1946.

    Starting in the 1970s, in the wake of a nickel boom that drew outsiders, tensions rose on the island, with various conflicts between Paris and Kanak independence movements.

    A 1998 Noumea Accord helped end the conflict by outlining a path to gradual autonomy and restricting voting to the Indigenous Kanak and migrants living in New Caledonia before 1998.

    In the accord, France vowed to gradually give more political power to the Pacific island territory of nearly 300,000 people.

    "How can we accept that our future is decided by Paris?" Qaeze said.

    "Paris has to respect what we have built since 1988.

    "And all the violence we see is a form of anger."

    Secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum Henry Puna said that rioting and upheavals In New Caledonia were not a surprise to him.

    He told Pacific media that the Kanak people could not participate fully in the independence referendum of 2021.

    "It was unfortunate that it was allowed to go ahead during that time. Because we were in the middle of COVID and the Kanaky custom is that when somebody passes, they mourn that for one year.

    "As a result, they didn't want to take part in the referendum, because they couldn't go against the tradition and go campaigning."


    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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