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France's Macron flies to New Caledonia in bid to quell remote Pacific territory's "unprecedented insurrection"

Noumea — France's president held a flurry of meetings with local representatives in the restive Pacific territory of New Caledonia on Thursday, urging calm after deadly rioting, and vowing thousands of military reinforcements will stay in place to quell what he called an "unprecedented insurrection."

Emmanuel Macron arrived Thursday in the capital Noumea after a 24-hour flight to seek ways to end more than a week of looting, arson and clashes that have left six people dead and hundreds injured. The unrest erupted over a French voting reform plan that indigenous Kanaks say will dilute their voice.

As he exited the plane at Tontouta International Airport, the French leader told reporters his "absolute priority" is "a return to peace, calm, security."

French President Macron visits New Caledonia
French President Emmanuel Macron arrives at the central police station in Noumea, in France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia, May 23, 2024. LUDOVIC MARIN/Pool/REUTERS

He was expected to spend about 12 hours on the ground.

What is the New Caledonia unrest about?

France has ruled New Caledonia since the 1800s, but many indigenous Kanaks still resent Paris's power over their islands and want fuller autonomy or independence.

The archipelago's deadliest unrest in four decades was sparked by French plans to give voting rights to thousands of non-indigenous long-term residents, something Kanaks say would dilute the influence of their votes.

The voting reform plans have "breached the contract of trust" with Paris, said Victor Gogny, president of New Caledonia's senate — a consultative body that weighs in on issues affecting Kanaks.

Since May 13, separatists have thrown up barricades that have cut off whole neighborhoods and the main route to the international airport, which remains shuttered. People of French and other origins have blocked off streets in their own neighborhoods in response.

Damage caused by rioters in New Caledonia
A damaged building is seen as rioters protest against plans to allow more people to take part in local elections in the French-ruled territory, which indigenous Kanak protesters reject, in Noumea, New Caledonia, May 15, 2024, in this picture obtained from social media. Lilou Garrido Navarro Kherachi/REUTERS

It was a "totally unprecedented movement of insurrection," Macron said, adding that "no-one saw it coming with this level of organization and violence."

Nightly riots have seen scores of cars, schools, shops and businesses burned.

French authorities have imposed a state of emergency, placed separatist leaders under house arrest, banned alcohol sales and sent around 3,000 troops, police and other security reinforcements to quell the turmoil.

But despite Macron's remark suggesting the unrest was unprecedented, CBS News' Elaine Cobbe, in Paris, says there have been repeated insurrections and protests over French rule for decades — the deadliest likely coming in 1988, when 21 people were killed during a lengthy hostage-taking.

The indigenous Kanaks have long fought against the French colonization, which has since the 19th century drawn a major influx of French and other Europeans. Kanaks now account for only 41% of the population, and that's why many don't want the new law.

Opponents fear it would effectively tighten Paris's control over the Pacific archipelago.

French President Macron visits New Caledonia
People demonstrate as French President Emmanuel Macron's motorcade drives past in Noumea, in France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia, May 23, 2024. LUDOVIC MARIN/Pool/REUTERS

Several referenda seeking independence have all failed, and many Kanaks believe that's at least in part due to the majority of voters not being Kanak and h0aving stronger ties to the French mainland.

Macron has ruled out going back on the result of the referendums, saying peace could not come at the cost of ignoring the will of the people or "somehow denying the road that has already been taken."

Where is New Caledonia, and why is it so important?

The fact that Macron is willing to make such a long journey just weeks before key European elections may show just how high the stakes are.

His visit began with a minute of silence for the dead and hours-long talks with anti-independence elected officials, before visiting a police station to thank security forces.

"By the end of the day" there would be "decisions" and "announcements" about next steps, Macron promised - while adding that he could extend his stay if needed.

Security forces would also "stay for as long as necessary, even during the Olympic and Paralympic Games," to be held in Paris in July-August.

Australia and Oceania Map. Vector colored map of Oceania
A map shows Australia and the small islands of Oceania, including the French territory of New Caledonia, in the South Pacific Ocean.  Getty

Much closer to Australia than Europe, New Caledonia is 10,500 miles from the French mainland but remains both part of France and a strategic outpost in an increasingly contested region.

China, the United States, New Zealand, Japan, Arab Gulf states and France are vying for influence across the South Pacific — seeing it as crucial geopolitical real estate.

New Caledonia is also attractive as one of the world's largest nickel producers, with up to 30% of global reserves.

Tension on the streets as tourists look for a way out

Macron last visited New Caledonia in July 2023, on a trip that was boycotted by Kanak representatives.

But leaders of all pro-independence parties joined Thursday's meeting with Macron, his office said, including top movement the Caledonian Union (UC) and the CCAT collective that has organized months of protests.

Out on the streets, AFP correspondents saw Kanaks still manning reinforced roadblocks on the day of Macron's visit, flying pro-independence flags and displaying protest banners against the electoral reform.

The draft law "doesn't exist to us any more, since people have died, it's no longer even up for discussion," said Lele, a 41-year-old mother in favor of independence.

But a heavy police presence was sheltering some semblance of normal life in central Noumea, where many shops had reopened to customers and long lines formed outside bakeries.

French President Macron visits New Caledonia
People line-up to buy bread in Magenta district, Noumea, in France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia, May 23, 2024, as French President Emmanuel Macron visits. LUDOVIC MARIN/Pool/REUTERS

Hundreds of tourists from Australia and New Zealand have begun to flee the turmoil, although hundreds more remain trapped.

There was anger Thursday that Macron's heavily secured visit had put further repatriation flights on hold.

Australia's foreign ministry emailed travelers to say there would be no flights Thursday, a situation New Zealand's Foreign Minister Winston Peters called "frustrating."

Efforts to reopen the international airport for commercial flights have been repeatedly delayed. But operators hope connections will resume on Saturday.

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