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State of emergency set for France’s New Caledonia after deadly riots

Riots rock France's New Caledonia over voting reform
Source: Video Screenshot

President Emmanuel Macron moved Wednesday to declare a state of emergency in France’s Pacific territory of New Caledonia after a second night of rioting left four dead, including a gendarme, and hundreds wounded.

Anger boiled over again after the lower house of parliament in far-way Paris overnight backed hotly-disputed changes to voting rolls that representatives of the indigenous Kanak population say will dilute their vote.

Despite heavily armed security forces fanning out across the capital Noumea, and the ordering of a nighttime curfew, rioting continued virtually unabated in the worst violence there since the 1980s.

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.

Colonised by France from the second half of the nineteen century, it has special status unlike other overseas territories.

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

Macron warned that any further violence would be met with an “unyielding” response and called for a resumption of political dialogue, the Elysee said.

The cabinet approved a state emergency, set to come into force from 8 pm Paris time” (5 am on Thursday in Noumea), government spokeswoman Prisca Thevenot said.

Prime Minister Gabriel Attal will head a crisis unit at the interior ministry to monitor its implementation, she said.

Under the state of emergency, authorities will be able to enforce travel bans, house arrests and searches, Thevenot added.

Nearly 1,800 law enforcement officers have been mobilised and a further 500 will reinforce them, she added.

Macron cancelled a planned trip to Normandy to chair a new crisis meeting on Thursday, the presidency said.

– Looting and fires –

Shops were looted and public buildings torched during overnight violence. Hundreds of people including around 100 police and gendarmes have been injured in the unrest, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said

The presidency said three people had been killed, while a gendarme has been seriously wounded. The gendarme later died of his wounds, the national gendarmerie said.

In Noumea and the commune of Paita there were reports of exchanges of fire between civil defence groups and rioters.

Streets in the capital were pocked with the shells of burned-out cars and buildings, including a sports store and a large concrete climbing wall.

“Numerous arsons and pillaging of shops, infrastructure and public buildings — including primary and secondary schools — were carried out,” said the High Commission, which represents the French central government in New Caledonia.

– ‘Calm and reason’ –

Security forces had managed to regain control of Noumea’s prison, which holds about 50 inmates, after an uprising and escape bid by prisoners, it said in a statement.

Police have arrested more than 130 people since Monday night, with dozens set to face court hearings, the commission said.

A nighttime curfew was extended, along with bans on gatherings, the carrying of weapons and the sale of alcohol.

The territory’s main international airport remained closed to commercial flights.

As rioters took to the streets, France’s lower house of parliament 17,000 kilometres (10,600 miles) away voted to give a vote to people who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years. The reform must still be approved by a joint sitting of both houses of the French parliament.

Pro-independence forces say that would dilute the vote of Kanaks, the Indigenous group that makes up about 41 percent of the population.

But those favouring the reform argue voter lists have not been updated since 1998 — depriving island residents who arrived since then from mainland France or elsewhere of a vote in provincial polls.

Macron has said French lawmakers would vote to definitively adopt the constitutional change by the end of June unless New Caledonia’s opposing sides agree on a new text that “takes into account the progress made and everyone’s aspirations”.

Pro- and anti-independence parties issued a joint statement calling for “calm and reason” to return to the archipelago, adding that “we are destined to keep living together”.

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Agence France-Presse (AFP) is a French international news agency headquartered in Paris, France. Founded in 1835 as Havas, it is the world's oldest news agency.

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