The National Times - State of emergency set for France's New Caledonia after deadly riots

State of emergency set for France's New Caledonia after deadly riots

State of emergency set for France's New Caledonia after deadly riots
State of emergency set for France's New Caledonia after deadly riots / Photo: © AFP

President Emmanuel Macron moved Wednesday to declare a state of emergency in France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia after a second night of rioting that left three dead and hundreds wounded, his office said.

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Anger over constitutional reforms from Paris boiled over again after the lower house of parliament overnight backed a hotly-disputed voting reform that the representatives of the indigenous Kanak population say weighs against them.

Despite heavily armed security forces fanning out across the capital Noumea, and the ordering of a nighttime curfew, rioting continued overnight virtually unabated in the worst violence there since the 1980s

New Caledonia, which lies between Australia and Fiji, is one of several French territories spanning the globe from the Caribbean and Indian Ocean to the Pacific that remain part of France in the post-colonial era.

Colonised by France from the second half of the nineteen century, it already has special status within France unlike other overseas territories.

While it has on three occasions rejected independence in referendums, independence retains support particularly among the indigenous Kanak people.

Macron warned that any further violence would be met with an "unyielding" response and called for a resumption of political dialogue to end the unrest, the Elysee said in a statement.

"The president has requested that the decree aimed at declaring a state of emergency in New Caledonia be included on the agenda" of a cabinet meeting this afternoon, the presidency said.

- Looting and fires -

Shops were looted and public buildings torched during overnight violence, the authorities there said.

Hundreds of people including around 100 police and gendarmes have been injured in the unrest, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said in Paris.

Giving a new toll, the presidency said three people had been killed, while a police officer has been very seriously wounded.

Macron cancelled a planned domestic trip and moved Wednesday's regular cabinet meeting to hold a crisis meeting with key ministers on New Caledonia earlier on Wednesday.

In Noumea and the commune of Paita there were reports of several exchanges of fire between civil defence groups and rioters.

Streets in the capital were pocked with the shells of burned-out cars and buildings, including a sports store and a large concrete climbing wall.

"Numerous arsons and pillaging of shops, infrastructure and public buildings -- including primary and secondary schools -- were carried out," said the High Commission, which represents the French central government in New Caledonia.

- 'Calm and reason' -

Security forces had managed to regain control of Noumea's prison, which holds about 50 inmates, after an uprising and escape bid by prisoners, it said in a statement.

Police have arrested more than 130 people since the riots broke out Monday night, with dozens placed in detention to face court hearings, the commission said.

A nighttime curfew was extended, along with bans on gatherings, the carrying of weapons and the sale of alcohol.

The territory's La Tontouta International Airport remained closed to commercial flights.

As rioters took to the streets, France's lower house of parliament 17,000 kilometres (10,600 miles) away voted in favour of a constitutional change bitterly opposed by indigenous Kanaks.

The reform -- which must still be approved by a joint sitting of both houses of the French parliament -- would give a vote to people who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years.

Pro-independence forces say that would dilute the share of the vote held by Kanaks, the Indigenous group that makes up about 41 percent of the population and the major force in the pro-independence movement.

But those in favour of the reform argue voter lists have not been updated since 1998 -- depriving island residents who arrived from mainland France or elsewhere since then of a vote in provincial polls.

Macron has said French lawmakers would vote to definitively adopt the constitutional change by the end of June unless New Caledonia's opposing sides agree on a new text that "takes into account the progress made and everyone's aspirations".

After he urged local representatives to soothe tensions, major pro- and anti-independence parties issued a joint statement Wednesday calling for "calm and reason" to return to the archipelago, adding that "we are destined to keep living together".