Nouméa ‘was on fire’ – New Zealander in New Caledonia tells of unrest

French riot police outside a torched shop in the New Caledonian capital Nouméa
French riot police outside a torched shop in the New Caledonian capital Nouméa today after three days of rioting over planned electoral law changes. Image: NC 1ère TV screenshot APR

RNZ News

A New Zealand man has described scenes of chaos in the New Caledonia capital of Nouméa during the escalating civil unrest.

Four people have died and hundreds have been injured during rioting by pro-independence supporters over electoral changes.

French president Emmanuel Macron has declared a 12-day state of emergency and about 1200 police enforcements were due to arrive from France.

New Zealand has upgraded its SafeTravel alert for parts of New Caledonia.

All commercial flights to and from the Nouméa-La Tontouta international airport have been cancelled and many holiday makers have been stuck in Nouméa.

Aucklander Mike Lightfoot is one of those people. He arrived in Nouméa in Monday and described the scenes in the city for RNZ Morning Report.

Lightfoot said that as he and his wife started to make their way to their hotel they saw protesters, some with machetes, but they were not too worried.

‘Intersections on fire’
“It was very peaceful, we thought at the time, but as we got closer into town we could certainly see there was unrest.

“There was intersections on fire . . . as we came into the town itself there were the Gendarmerie in full gear . . . we thought this was getting serious.”

Burning cars at a Nouméa protest barricade today.
Burning cars at a Nouméa protest barricade today. Image: NC 1ère TV screenshot APR

Lightfoot said his wife needed a doctor for a chest condition and as they were in the doctor’s surgery “we heard explosions and gunshots very close to us”.

“They were rioting right through town, the town was on fire. Fortunately our taxi driver pulled down a side street, stopped for a second, got himself together. There were people running around our car and carrying on and he took off.

“We climbed up in through the suburbs and as we came down to try and get back to our hotel we came to a roundabout and they had the roundabout completely blocked off, there would have been, we estimate, around 150 of them there protesting.

“The whole roundabout was on fire, they had big blocks in the middle of the road.

“As we edged through, the smoke was so black we couldn’t really see the road. One of them whacked the car as we went through but yeah, it was pretty unsettling . . . ”

‘Be prepared to evacuate’
His hotel, Chateau Royal, has asked people staying there not to step foot outside of the complex and “they’ve asked us to be prepared, that we may need to evacuate”.

About 51 New Zealanders were staying at the hotel, he said.

“We’re sort of feeling that people in New Zealand are really not understanding how serious this is and it’s quite unsettling for us all here, in fact we want out of here very quickly to be fair.”

Lightfoot said the airlines were keeping them informed.

“As soon as we are able to get to the airport they’ve [one airline] said that we are definitely on one of those planes. Air New Zealand at this point are planning to have a flight here on Saturday, if that goes ahead they also have us listed on that flight to get us out.”

Supplies in the issue were a problem and staff were living on site for their own safety, he said.

RNZ Pacific’s Koroi Hawkins said some Kanak leaders have told him they seem to have lost control of the youth.

Other residents in the city of Nouméa, some of them pro-French, have began to arm themselves as vigilantes.

Unrest a concern – Sepuloni
Labour Party’s deputy leader Carmel Sepuloni told RNZ’s First Up the growing unrest in New Caledonia was a concern.

Sepuloni said it was a worry, but she was not sure whether New Zealand would have any involvement in trying to bring the situation in the French territory under control.

At last year’s Pacific Leaders Forum, French Polynesian representatives were already expressing concern about how some policies from the French government might affect its inidgenous population, she said.

Glimmer of hope, says former envoy
A former Australian consul-general for New Caledonia Denise Fisher said measures in the French territory could hopefully fix the immediate security problem, but this was not the core issue.

“The key issue that set off the situation was about representation, who can vote in local elections.

“And it seems such an esoteric issue but it’s a critical issue, especially for the independence supporters.”

Fisher said 40 years ago, when peace agreements were reached after four years of violence, the key issue for the Kanak independence leaders was to constrain voting to only those with long term residence in New Caledonia.

“So it’s a core issue with the breaking down and the expiry of these agreements. We’re now in a political kind of a vacuum and talks about this haven’t got very far.”

She said there was a glimmer of hope on Wednesday.

“Some independence parties and some loyalist parties issued a joint communiqué calling for peace

“They’ve been having, as they have at the end of last year, informal talks, that they think they can talk and come to some sort of agreement to put to the French in the next couple of weeks.”

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