France deploys troops, bans TikTok to quell deadly New Caledonia unrest

France © Delphine Mayeur / AFP
© Delphine Mayeur / AFP

France deployed troops to New Caledonia's ports and international airport, banned TikTok and imposed a state of emergency Thursday after three nights of clashes that have left four dead and hundreds wounded.

Pro-independence, largely Indigenous protests against a French plan to impose new voting rules on its Pacific archipelago have spiralled into the deadliest violence since the 1980s, with a police officer among several killed by gunfire.

On major thoroughfares, the torched detritus amassed over four days of unrest was scattered amid fist-size hunks of rock and cement that appeared to have been flung during riots.

Armoured vehicles roved the city's palm-lined boulevards, usually thronged with tourists.

Fearful locals set up make-shift roadblocks - piling wooden pallets, wheelbarrows, bedframes, plastic jerricans, tree fronds and scraps of fencing across the streets.

As part of a sweeping French response, security forces placed five suspected ringleaders under house arrest, according to a statement by the high commission, which represents the French state in New Caledonia.

House searches will be carried out "in the coming hours", it said.

More than 200 "rioters" have been arrested since the clashes broke out, the high commission said.

Hundreds of people, including 64 police, have been wounded, officials said.

France is establishing an "air bridge", the high commission said, to rapidly move in troop and police reinforcements but also to bring in essential supplies for the population.

TikTok ban

French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal told a crisis ministerial meeting that troops had been deployed to secure ports and the international airport, which has been closed to commercial flights.

TikTok had been banned because it was being used by rioters, he said.

The state of emergency enables authorities to enforce travel bans, house arrests and searches.

Along with a night curfew, there are bans on gatherings, the carrying of weapons and the sale of alcohol.

Nearly 1,800 law enforcement officers have been mobilised and a further 500 will reinforce them, a French government spokeswoman said.

Constitutional reform

As people took to the streets, France's National Assembly, 17,000 kilometres away, voted on Tuesday to allow residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years to cast ballots. 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, who make 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 after of being able to participate in provincial polls.

French President Emmanuel 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".

He offered to hold talks Thursday with New Caledonian lawmakers and called for a resumption of political dialogue.