Kanaky New Caledonia unrest: Macron lifts state of emergency ‘for time being’

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A French gendarme mobile force unit in a
A French gendarme mobile force unit in a "mopping up" operation in Nouméa . . . fresh reinforcements will bring the total security forces in New Caledonia up to 3500. Image: French govt

By Patrick Decloitre, RNZ Pacific correspondent French Pacific desk

French President Emmanuel Macron has announced the 12-day state of emergency imposed in New Caledonia on May 15 would not be extended “for the time being”.

The decision not to renew the state of emergency was mainly designed to “allow the components of the pro-independence FLNKS (Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front) to hold meetings and to be able to go to the roadblocks and ask for them to be lifted”, Macron said in a media release late yesterday.

The state of emergency officially ended at 5am today (Nouméa time).

It was imposed after deadly and destructive riots erupted in the French Pacific archipelago with a backdrop of ongoing protests against proposed changes to the French Constitution, that would allow citizens having resided there for at least 10 years to take part in local elections.

Pro-independence parties feared the opening of conditions of eligibility would significantly weaken the indigenous Kanak population’s political representation.

During a 17-hour visit to New Caledonia on Thursday last week, Macron set the lifting of blockades as the precondition to the resumption of “concrete and serious” political talks regarding New Caledonia’s long-term political future.

The talks were needed in order to find a successor agreement, including all parties (pro-independence and “loyalists” or pro-France), to the Nouméa Accord signed in 1998.

Attempts to hold these talks, over the past two-and-a-half years, have so far failed.

House arrests lifted
Not renewing the state of emergency would also put an end to restriction on movements and a number of house arrests placed on several pro-independence radical leaders — including Christian Téin, the leader of a so-called CCAT (Field Action Coordination Committee), close to the more radical fringe of FLNKS.

The CCAT is regarded as the main organiser of the protests which led to ongoing unrest.

In a speech published on social networks on Friday after Macron’s visit, Téin called for the easing of security measures to allow him to speak to militants, but in the same breath he assured supporters the intention was to “remain mobilised and maintain resistance”.

Since they broke out on May 13, the riots have caused seven deaths, hundreds of injuries and estimated damage of almost 1 billion euros (NZ$1.8 billion) to the local economy. Up to 500 companies, business and retail stores had also been looted or destroyed by arson.

Following Macron’s visit last week, a “mission” consisting of three high-level public servants has remained in New Caledonia to foster a resumption of political dialogue between leaders of all parties.

French President Emmanuel Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron . . . “this violence cannot pretend to represent a legitimate political action”. Image: Caledonia TV screenshot RNZ

More reinforcements
In the same announcement, the French presidential office said a fresh contingent of “seven additional gendarme mobile forces units, for a total of 480” would be flown to New Caledonia “within the coming hours”.

Macron said this would bring the number of security forces in New Caledonia to 3500.

He once again condemned the blockades and looting, saying “this violence cannot pretend to represent a legitimate political action”.

In parallel to the lifting of the state of emergency, a dusk-to-dawn curfew remained in force.

On the ground, mainly in Nouméa and its outskirts, security operations were ongoing, with several neighbourhoods and main access roads still blocked and controlled by pockets of rioters.

At the weekend, intrusions from groups of rioters forced French forces to evacuate some 30 residents (mostly of European descent) some of whose houses had been set on fire.

La Tontouta airport still closed
Meanwhile, the international Nouméa-La Tontouta airport would remain closed to all commercial flights until June 2, it was announced on Monday. The airport, which remained cut off from the capital Nouméa due to pro-independence roadblocks, has been closed for the past three weeks.

French delegate minister for Overseas Marie Guévenoux, who arrived with Macron last week and has remained in New Caledonia since, assured on Sunday the situation in Nouméa and its outskirts was “improving”.

“Police and gendarmes are slowly regaining ground… The (French) state will regain all of these neighbourhoods,” she told France Television.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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