Macron makes surprise trip to New Caledonia amid deadly unrest

French President Emmanuel Macron is making a surprise trip to New Caledonia, the French Pacific territory that has been hit by days of deadly unrest and where indigenous people have long sought independence.

“He will go there tonight,” government spokeswoman Prisca Thevenot said after a cabinet meeting in which the president said he had decided to make the more than 33,000 kilometer round trip himself to the archipelago in the east. from Australia.

Six people were killed, including two gendarmes, and hundreds more were injured in New Caledonia during armed clashes, looting and arson, raising new questions about Macron’s handling of France’s colonial legacy.

There have been decades of tensions between the indigenous Kanaks who seek independence for the archipelago of 270,000 people and the descendants of colonizers and others who have settled on the island and who want to remain part of France.

Riots broke out on May 13 as the French legislature in Paris debated amending the French Constitution to make changes to New Caledonia’s voter lists. Opponents fear the move will benefit pro-France politicians in New Caledonia and further marginalize Kanaks who once suffered from strict policies of segregation and widespread discrimination.

The violence is the most serious to hit New Caledonia since the 1980s, when France also imposed emergency measures on the island that became French in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III.

Paris declared a minimum 12-day state of emergency on the island last Wednesday and sent 1,000 reinforcements to reinforce security forces that lost control of parts of the capital, Nouméa.

“Given the outbreak of violence, the priority is to restore order to allow dialogue to resume in New Caledonia,” said government spokesman Thevenot. “We are clear: there is much to do before returning to normality. The government is fully mobilized.”

Leaving on Tuesday night will mean, due to the distance and time difference, that Macron will arrive in New Caledonia on Thursday morning, his office said. He said he was expected to stay one day.

Macron will meet with political, business, civic and youth leaders and try to “renew the thread of dialogue” in search of “a comprehensive political agreement,” Prime Minister Gabriel Attal told parliament, where lawmakers observed a moment of silence for The six. people killed in violence.

Hundreds of New Zealanders have been stranded on the Pacific island for more than a week.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said he will join Macron, along with the ministers of defense and French overseas territories. The visit will allow Macron and his ministers to see first-hand some of the destruction that turned parts of Noumea into no-go zones, with buildings burned, shops looted and barricades erected by independence supporters, some armed, and by individuals. coming together to protect livelihoods and homes.

With police granted emergency powers and a curfew in effect between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., French authorities say security forces are beginning to contain the unrest. They announced another 22 arrests Tuesday for a total close to 300.

The violence in New Caledonia has sparked a new debate about France’s colonial past. Macron’s efforts to address this issue have largely focused on Africa, where France had colonies and where local frustration in some countries has led to recent calls for French forces to leave the country.

A priority for French authorities in New Caledonia since the weekend has been to clear the road to Nouméa international airport of barricades and the remains of burned vehicles, raising the possibility that stranded tourists will be able to leave.

Australia and New Zealand sent planes to New Caledonia on Tuesday to begin bringing their citizens home. Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said Australia had received clearance from French authorities for two evacuation flights and would work on more.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs said 300 Australians were in New Caledonia. He did not immediately confirm whether the flights would evacuate other stranded foreign nationals, believed to be in the thousands.

The New Zealand Government announced an evacuation effort for about 50 citizens.

“New Zealanders in New Caledonia have faced a difficult few days and bringing them home has been an urgent priority for the Government,” said Foreign Minister Winston Peters. “In cooperation with France and Australia, we are working on subsequent flights in the coming days.”

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