New Caledonia protesters, police spar ahead of Macron visit


  • World
  • Wednesday, 22 May 2024

A damaged building is seen amid riots against plans to allow more people to take part in local elections in the French-ruled territory, which indigenous Kanak protesters reject, in Noumea, New Caledonia May 16, 2024 in this screengrab obtained from video. Yoan Fleurot/via REUTERS/ File Photo

SYDNEY/PARIS (Reuters) -Protesters in New Caledonia erected new barricades overnight in "cat-and-mouse" games with French police reinforcements ahead of the arrival of President Emmanuel Macron, after the worst riots on the French-ruled Pacific island in 40 years.

Macron was due to land in the French overseas territory early on Thursday for talks after government electoral reforms passed last week sparked violence that has killed six people and left a trail of looted shops and torched cars.

The protesters fear the reforms will dilute the votes of indigenous Kanaks, who make up 40% of the island's population versus 24% who identify as European, according to a 2019 census.

New Caledonia was also hit by a short-lived cyberattack on Wednesday that sought to disrupt the internet, the island's government said.

A source familiar with an initial probe by the Paris prosecutor's office into the attack said there was nothing so far to suggest foreign interference, despite a local official saying most of the IP addresses involved originated in Russia.

The riots have calmed down but are not over, local officials said. Reuters drone footage showed smoke rising above damaged buildings in the capital Noumea, as well as burning road blockades and continued clashes between protesters and police.

"The police forces go around clearing these barricades but right after that, the youths put them up again, so it's almost a cat-and-mouse game," said Jimmy Naouna, from the Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS).

The pro-independence FLNKS had called for protesters to remove roadblocks that restrict movement and food supplies in Noumea, though they continued to appear overnight, Naouna told Reuters in an interview.

Much now hinges on what Macron will say and do during his visit.

Aides say Macron has no pre-conceived plan and will talk with all parties about reconstruction in the wake of the riots, as well as about politics, but is unlikely to rush into any major decision.

'UNDER SIEGE'

This may disappoint some local groups, including FLNKS, who want Macron to shelve the electoral reform.

"We are expecting that if he (Macron) travels to Kanaky he will make some strong announcement that he is withdrawing this electoral bill, but if he is just coming here as a provocation that might just turn bad," Naouna said, using the island's indigenous name.

Calls to scrap the bill - or at least postpone its ratification - come not only from the pro-independence camp.

Noumea Mayor Sonia Lagarde, a member of Macron's Renaissance party, described her city as "under siege."

Lagarde told France 2 TV she hoped Macron would announce a postponement of a joint session of France's National Assembly and Senate that is required to ratify the electoral reform.

New Caledonia's Pacific neighbours have repeatedly urged Macron to listen to the island's leaders and calm a situation they say worries them. New Zealand and Australia have started to evacuate tourists from the island.

"I think the gesture of President Macron travelling there is an important one, and we just urge both sides to support the Noumea Accords," Australia's Pacific minister Pat Conroy told ABC Television.

Electoral rolls were frozen in 1998 under the Noumea Accord, which ended a decade of violence and established a pathway to gradual autonomy, which critics say has now been jeopardised.

The Field Action Coordination Cell (CCAT), organiser of the protests, called on social media for demonstrators to display Kanak flags and banners opposing the electoral amendment.

"We don't know what Macron and his team are coming to do but we remain mobilised and confident for Kanaky," it said.

France annexed New Caledonia in 1853 and gave the colony the status of overseas territory in 1946. It is the world's No. 3 nickel miner but the sector is in crisis and one in five residents lives below the poverty threshold.

The electoral reform would allow French residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years to vote in provincial elections - a move Paris says is needed to improve democracy.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham in Sydney, and Camille Raynaud, Michaela Cabrera, Dominique Vidalon, Michel Rose, Tassilo Hummel in Paris, David Brunnstrom in Washington; writing by Ingrid Melander, Kirsty Needham, Dominique Vidalon; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Gareth Jones)

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