Macron says he will not force through voting reform in troubled New Caledonia

23 May 2024, 15:24

New Caledonia
New Caledonia. Picture: PA

The French president called for a minute’s silence for the six people killed in shootings during the violence in the archipelago.

French President Emmanuel Macron said on a visit to riot-hit New Caledonia on Thursday that he will not force through a contested voting reform that has sparked deadly unrest in the French Pacific territory.

He said he wants to leave time for local leaders to come up with an alternate agreement for the archipelago’s future.

Speaking after a day of meetings with leaders on both sides of New Caledonia’s bitter divide between indigenous Kanaks who want independence and pro-Paris leaders who do not, Mr Macron laid out a roadmap that he said could lead to another referendum on the archipelago.

Three earlier referendums between 2018 and 2021 produced “no” votes against independence.

French president Emmanuel Macron arriving in to Noumea n La Tontouta International airport in New Caledonia
French president Emmanuel Macron arrived at Noumea La Tontouta International airport in New Caledonia (Ludovic Marin/Pool Photo via AP)

He said another referendum could be on a new political deal for the archipelago that he hopes local leaders will agree on in coming weeks after protesters’ barricades are dismantled, allowing for a state of emergency to be lifted and for peace to return.

“I have pledged that this reform won’t be pushed through with force today in the current context and that we are giving ourselves a few weeks to allow for calm, the resumption of dialogue, with a view to a global agreement,” he said.

Mr Macron has pushed for the removal of protesters’ barricades during his visit said police sent in to help battle deadly unrest in the French Pacific archipelago “will stay as long as necessary”.

His comments came even as security services back in France were focusing in coming weeks on safeguarding the Paris Olympics.

By cancelling his previously announced schedule to fly across the globe from Paris to New Caledonia, Mr Macron brought the weight of his office to bear on the crisis, which has left six dead and a trail of destruction.

Pro-independence Kanak leaders, who a week earlier declined Mr Macron’s offer of talks by video, joined a meeting the French leader hosted in the capital, Noumea, with rival pro-Paris leaders who want New Caledonia, which became French in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III, to remain part of France.

Mr Macron first called for a minute’s silence for the six people killed in shootings during the violence, including two gendarmes. He then urged local leaders to use their clout to help restore order.

Mr Macron with France’s minister for interior and overseas Gerald Darmanin, left, during a meeting with New Caledonia’s elected officials at the French High Commissioner's residence in Noumea
Mr Macron with France’s minister for interior and overseas Gerald Darmanin, left, during his visit (Ludovic Marin/Pool Photo via AP)

He said a state of emergency imposed by Paris for at least 12 days on May 15 to boost police powers could only be lifted if local leaders called for a clearing away of barricades that demonstrators and people trying to protect their neighbourhoods had erected in Noumea and beyond.

“Everyone has a responsibility to really call for the lifting of the barricades, the cessation of all forms of attack, not simply for calm,” he said.

Barricades made of charred vehicles and other debris had turned some parts of Noumea into no-go zones and made travelling around perilous, including for the sick requiring medical treatment and for families concerned about where to find food and water after shops were pillaged and torched.

French authorities said more than 280 people had been arrested since violence first flared on May 13 as the French legislature in Paris debated contested changes to New Caledonia voter lists.

The unrest continued to simmer as Mr Macron jetted in, despite a 6pm to 6am curfew and more than 1,000 reinforcements for the archipelago’s police and gendarmes, now 3,000 strong.

“I will be very clear here. These forces will remain as long as necessary. Even during the Olympic Games and Paralympics,” which open in Paris on July 26, Mr Macron said.

Mr Macron, second right, spoke with New Caledonia’s president Louis Mapou, second left
Mr Macron, second right, and New Caledonia’s president Louis Mapou, second left, during the visit (Ludovic Marin/Pool Photo via AP)

Mr Macron said on arrival at Noumea’s La Tontouta International Airport – which remains closed to commercial flights – that he wanted “to be alongside the people and see a return to peace, calm and security as soon as possible”.

Later, at Noumea’s central police station, Mr Macron thanked officers for facing what he described as “an absolutely unprecedented insurrection movement”.

“No-one saw it coming with this level of organisation and violence,” he said. “You did your duty. And I thank you.”

The violence is the severest in New Caledonia since the 1980s, the last time France imposed a state of emergency on the archipelago of 270,000 people and decades of tensions over the issue of independence between Kanaks and the descendants of colonists and other settlers.

The French president speaking to a policeman at the central police station in Noumea
The French president thanked officers for facing what he described as ‘an absolutely unprecedented insurrection movement’ (Ludovic Marin/Pool Photo via AP)

Fires, looting and other violence targeting hundreds of businesses, homes, shops, public buildings and other sites in and around Noumea have caused destruction estimated in the hundreds of millions of euros.

This week, military flights evacuated stranded tourists.

“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,” Mr Macron said.

“By the end of the day, decisions will be taken and announcements will be made.”

A road block in central Noumea
Barricades have turned some parts of Noumea into no-go zones (Ludovic Marin/Pool Photo via AP)

Mr Macron flew to the archipelago under pressure from politicians in France and pro-independence supporters to delay or scrap the overhaul of the voting system for New Caledonia which triggered the unrest.

Both French houses of parliament in Paris have approved the proposed reform but it would require a revision of France’s constitution to take effect.

It would enlarge voter numbers in provincial elections for New Caledonia’s legislature and government, adding about 25,000 voters, including people who have been residents of the archipelago for at least 10 years and others born there.

People demonstrating as Mr Macron’s motorcade drove past in Noumea
People demonstrated as Mr Macron’s motorcade drove past in Noumea (Ludovic Marin/Pool Photo via AP)

Opponents fear the measure will benefit pro-France politicians in New Caledonia and further marginalise the Kanaks, who once suffered from strict segregation policies and widespread discrimination.

Supporters say the proposed overhaul is democratically important for people with roots in New Caledonia who cannot currently vote for local representatives.

By Press Association

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