France hails 'progress' on appeasing protest-hit New Caledonia

France © Theo Rouby/AFP
© Theo Rouby/AFP

An uneasy calm has returned to New Caledonia after the deployment of hundreds of French security forces to shut down violent protests on the Pacific island territory sparked by opposition to a controversial Constitutional reform. While the international airport remains closed to commercial traffic, Australia and New Zealand began evacuating nationals on government planes.

“A return to calm continues on the whole territory,” wrote the French state representative in New Caledonia, Louis Le Franc, in a statement published Tuesday, announcing the deployment of additional security forces.

Six people have been killed in violence sparked by protesters angry about a constitutional reform that would change who can participate in local elections, which pro-Independence leaders say will dilute the indigenous Kanak voice.

Rioting and looting have shuttered businesses, and road barricades have restricted access to food and medical care.

President Emmanuel Macron noted “progress” towards re-establishing law and order, after a defence council Monday night, where he decided to send the army to protect public buildings.

Stranded tourists

Australia and New Zealand announced the first evacuation flights for tourists blocked by the unrest, as the main international airport is closed to commercial traffic at least until Thursday.

Australia's Foreign Minister Penny Wong said Tuesday that clearance had been received for two "Australian government assisted-departure flights today for Australian and other tourists to depart New Caledonia".

A New Zealand Defence Force plane has picked up the "first tranche" of passengers, according to Foreign Minister Winston Peters, who said further flights would be sent in coming days.

More than 3,000 people thought to have been stranded in New Caledonia.

France's High Commission in New Caledonia asked French residents who normally live outside New Caledonia to register their details for support to return home.

Stalemate on constitutional reform

Following the defense council, France decided to continue the state of emergency and extend the night-time curfew in place along with a ban on gatherings and the use of TikTok.

The government has asked New Caledonians to continue discussion on the constitutional reform, but loyalists say they will not negotiate until there is a return to order on the territory.

They also refuse to consider suspending the reform, as demanded by the pro-Independence parties that have been involved in the protests.

Withdrawing the reform would justify “the troublemakers, looters and rioters”, New Caledonian MP Nicolas Metzdorf, a anti-independence member of Macron's Renaissance party, said at a press conference in Noumea.

(with newswires)