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Macron in riot-hit New Caledonia for high-stakes talks

POOL VIA REUTERS
                                French President Emmanuel Macron visits the central police station in Noumea.
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POOL VIA REUTERS

French President Emmanuel Macron visits the central police station in Noumea.

SYDNEY/PARIS >> President Emmanuel Macron said police reinforcements in New Caledonia would remain as long as required, after viewing areas devastated by deadly riots in the French-ruled Pacific island triggered by a contested electoral reform.

Macron’s hastily arranged visit to New Caledonia on Thursday comes after six people were killed in riots that have left a trail of looted shops and torched cars and businesses since they began more than a week ago.

“In the coming hours and days, massive new operations will be scheduled where necessary, and republican order in its entirety will be re-established because there is no other choice,” Macron said during a meeting with political and business leaders in the capital Noumea.

Roads across the island remained blocked by protester barricades on Thursday, and residents shared advice on social media on safe routes to find food, petrol and medicine.

Macron earlier flew by helicopter over areas wrecked by arson, with bulldozers working to clear away rubble. Mayors from these worst-hit suburbs joined Macron’s meeting at France’s High Commission, along with pro-French and pro-independence leaders.

With the island under a state of emergency, Macron said additional security totalling 3,000 personnel would remain, even during the Paris Olympics if required.

“I personally believe that the state of emergency should not be extended,” he said, adding it would be lifted only when protesters remove the roadblocks.

Protesters fear the electoral reform, already passed by lawmakers in mainland France, will dilute the votes of indigenous Kanaks, who make up 40% of the island’s population of 270,000 people, and make it harder for any future referendum on independence to pass.

The reform requires a meeting of both houses of parliament for it to be ratified. A French government spokeswoman told Europe 1 radio on Thursday that Macron would address the issue of whether to delay that meeting.

POLITICAL IMPASSE

Indigenous Kanak political leaders meeting with Macron included the president of New Caledonia’s government, Louis Mapou, and the president of its Congress, Roch Wamytan, who was a signatory to a 1998 Noumea Accord that ended a decade of violence by outlining a path to gradual autonomy.

The expiry of the accord in 2021 and a Kanak boycott of an independence referendum held during the COVID-19 pandemic has since created a political impasse.

Before the meeting, the pro-independence Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) bloc issued a statement saying it expected Macron to make a strong announcement that could “breathe new life” into dialogue.

Macron said the aim of the meeting, which also includes French loyalist politicians such as Sonia Backes, was to get all parties back around the table.

“Calming down cannot mean turning back the clock. Calming down cannot mean disregarding the popular expression that has already taken place,” said Macron.

Coming out of the meeting with Macron, Georges Naturel, a New Caledonian representatives in France’s senate and the mayor of Dumbea where stores were set on fire, said society needed to rebuild in a different way.

“Supporting young people is something important to us. And then, having this real social project. Afterwards, there is the institutional political project, but we have not yet debated that.”

Macron had told the meeting more security forces are coming.

“We are all convinced that this will not be enough. We also need strong, political messages,” Naturel said.

The message must be to pause and talk calmly, he said.

FLNKS want Macron to shelve the electoral reform that Paris says is needed to improve democracy on the island. The Noumea Accord had frozen electoral rolls, and the reform would allow thousands more French residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years to vote.

Macron must also allow more time for a political agreement on the future of the island to be discussed, local political groups have said.

New Caledonia is the world’s No. 3 nickel miner but the sector is in crisis and one in five residents lives below the poverty threshold.

Accompanied by his defence and interior security ministers, Macron later met police at Noumea’s central police station.

“Thank you for being here, thank you very much,” Macron told a uniformed officer, before going into a closed-door meeting.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham and Renju Jose in Sydney, and Camille Raynaud, Bertrand Boucey, Michel Rose, Michaela Cabrera and Dominique Vidalon in Paris; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Alison Williams, Sonali Paul and Lincoln Feast.)

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