France's Macron travels to New Caledonia to 'resume dialogue' after deadly riots


French President Emmanuel Macron is making a surprise trip to New Caledonia, the French Pacific territory that has been gripped by days of deadly violence following protests from the indigenous Kanak population who have long sought independence from Paris.

Speaking this Tuesday, government spokesperson Prisca Thevenot announced, "[Macron] will go there tonight,” following a cabinet meeting where the president said he had decided to make the more than 33,000-kilometere round trip himself to the archipelago east of Australia.

In just over a week, at least six people have been killed – including two gendarmes – and hundreds of others injured in New Caledonia amid armed clashes, looting and arson, raising questions about Macron's handling of France's colonial legacy.

For decades, tensions have flared between indigenous Kanaks who seek independence for the archipelago of 270,000 people, and descendants of colonisers and colonists who want to remain part of France.

The latest unrest erupted on 13 May as the French legislature in Paris debated amending the French Constitution to make changes to New Caledonia voter lists.

Opponents fear the measure will benefit pro-French politicians in New Caledonia and further marginalise Kanaks who once suffered from strict segregation policies and widespread discrimination.

Destruction in Nouméa

Last Wednesday, French authorities declared a 12-day minimum state of emergency on the island and rushed in 1,000 reinforcements to bolster security forces that lost control of parts of the capital, Nouméa.

“Faced with the outbreak of violence, the priority is the return of order to allow dialogue to resume in New Caledonia," Thevenot, the government spokeswoman, said. “We are clear: Much remains to be done before a return to normal. The government is fully mobilised."

She gave no details about how long Macron will stay or who he will meet.

But the French president will see first hand the destruction that has turned parts of Nouméa into no-go zones, with buildings torched, shops pillaged and barricades erected both by pro-independence supporters – some armed – and people banding together to protect livelihoods and homes.

With police given emergency powers and a 6pm to 6am curfew in effect, the authorities say security forces are starting to contain unrest.

They announced further 22 arrests on Tuesday, bringing the total number to almost 300.