Macron In High Octane Visit To Riot-Hit New Caledonia

(MENAFN- Gulf Times) President Emmanuel macron flew on Wednesday to France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia on a Politically risky visit, aiming to defuse a crisis after nine days of riots that have killed six people and injured hundreds.
Macron's sudden decision to fly to the southwest Pacific archipelago, around 17,000km from mainland France, is a sign of the gravity with which the government views the flaring pro-separatist violence.
He was expected to touch down in New Caledonia today morning local time.
There have long been tensions between the Paris government and pro-independence voices among the indigenous Kanak population in New Caledonia, colonised in the second half of the 19th century and part of French overseas territories spanning the globe.
Macron is expected to spend about 12 hours on the ground and set up a task force to deal with the crisis after upending his programme for the rest of the week, just ahead of June's European elections.
He last visited New Caledonia in July 2023, on a trip that was boycotted by Kanak representatives.
The pro-independence FLNKS party said ahead of Macron's arrival that roadblocks would be reinforced and“welcome committees” set up to greet the president, backed by the CCAT activist group that has organised protests against voting reform.
“It's double or quits. It's a bet,” said a presidential adviser, asking not to be named, while an MP described the trip as a“poker move”.
Such was the last-minute nature of the voyage that a schedule for Macron was being drawn up during the 24-hour flight, without knowing who would be willing to meet him.
“This is absolute improvisation,” a source close to Macron said.
Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said the task force would remain in place“for as long as necessary... with a view to reaching an overall political agreement”.
The territory's deadliest unrest in four decades was sparked by French plans to give voting rights to thousands of non-indigenous residents, which Kanaks say would dilute the influence of their own votes.
French authorities sent more than 1,000 troops, police and other security reinforcements in a bid to quell the violence. But unrest has continued, though not on the scale of the early days.
A popular holiday destination, New Caledonia is now strewn with burned-out vehicles, businesses and schools.
Two primary schools and 300 cars in a dealership were torched in the territory's capital Noumea during the night, the mayor's office told AFP.
Security forces“clear barricades, but they're rebuilt one after the other,” Mayor Sonia Lagarde said.
Police are holding 269 people in custody over the unrest gripping the territory of 270,000 people, Noumea prosecutor Yves Dupas said, while local government minister Dominique Faure said 86 police officers had been injured.
Kanak separatists, some masked and wielding homemade catapults, manned makeshift roadblocks including on the main route to the international airport, AFP correspondents said.
The CCAT said it would block major routes leading to the north of the island throughout the day today.
“I don't know why our fate is being discussed by people who don't even live here,” said Mike, a 52-year-old Kanak who gave only his first name, at a roadblock north of the capital.
Armed locals, of French and other origins, have set up their own neighbourhood barricades.
Jean, a 57-year-old manning one of those barriers who also gave only his first name, said it was“good news” Macron was coming.
“The situation is totally stuck, we have to hope that this will allow people to calm down,” he said.
New Caledonia's government also said telecom services had managed to stop an“unprecedented” mass e-mail cyberattack on an Internet provider for the territory.
There would be“no long-term consequences”, cybersecurity agency ANSSI said on Wednesday, calling for“prudence” about attributing the attack.
Meanwhile the mining firm Eramet, whose SLN nickel subsidiary is New Caledonia's largest employer, told AFP on Wednesday that all its sites had been shut down amid the violence.
Trapped tourists have begun to flee the turmoil.
Australia has repatriated“187 Australians and members of their families” since Tuesday, senator Penny Wong posted on X, and New Zealand has evacuated citizens via the small Magenta airport.
Further flights will be organised until the main La Tontouta International Airport reopens to commercial flights, which the operator expects on Saturday.
Many Kanaks, who make up about 40% of the population, oppose the plan to extend voting rights to those who have lived in the territory for at least 10 years, which is widely backed by anti-independence representatives.
One option open to Macron would be to delay the voting rights bill, which has been approved by the lower house but still needs to be ratified by a congress of both French houses of parliament.


Gulf Times

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