France's Macron to visit riot-scarred New Caledonia

Many Indigenous people oppose expanding the voter roll to include more new arrivals (Theo Rouby)
Many Indigenous people oppose expanding the voter roll to include more new arrivals (Theo Rouby)

French President Emmanuel Macron will visit riot-hit New Caledonia, Paris said Tuesday, as tourists are evacuated from the Pacific territory that has suffered over a week of unrest.

Macron "will leave as soon as this evening," government spokeswoman Prisca Thevenot said, hoping to soothe tempers over his government's voting reform plans rejected by indigenous Kanaks.

Earlier Tuesday an Australian Air Force transport aircraft evacuated trapped tourists from a small domestic airport in New Caledonia's capital Noumea, as separatist roadblocks still hinder access to the international hub.

Australia and New Zealand sent an initial batch of planes to Noumea Magenta airport, where AFP correspondents saw the first Australian C-130 Hercules aircraft land and several coaches waiting.

"Passengers are being prioritised based on need. We continue to work on further flights," Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said on social media, announcing two initial flights.

The first transport with evacuees landed in Brisbane in eastern Australia around 7:00 pm (0900 GMT) Tuesday.

A second C-130 was slated to land in Auckland, New Zealand around 1000 GMT, with Foreign Minister Winston Peters saying it would bring "50 passengers with the most pressing needs" and promising "subsequent flights in coming days".

Australian tourist Maxwell Winchester said he and his wife Tiffany were "ecstatic" to hear evacuation flights had begun after being stuck in a barricaded resort for a week.

Charles Roger, director of New Caledonia's Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) which operates Noumea's larger La Tontouta international airport, told AFP there would be no commercial flights there until Saturday morning.

- Catapults -

The Pacific territory of 270,000 people has been in turmoil since May 13, when violence erupted over French plans to impose new voting rules that would give tens of thousands of non-indigenous residents voting rights.

The unrest has left six people dead, including two police, and hundreds injured.

Local prosecutors said Tuesday that around 400 shops and businesses had been damaged, many of them by fire, while the CCI on Monday tallied 150 businesses "looted and set on fire".

The French authorities in New Caledonia said police had so far arrested nearly 270 "rioters".

Twenty-one supermarkets have been able to reopen and gradually restock, the French high commission said Tuesday.

French forces were slowly restoring calm across the territory, clearing burned-out vehicles from roads, and deploying troops to protect public buildings, authorities said.

French officials said at the weekend that security forces had destroyed 76 roadblocks along the critical 60-kilometre (40-mile) road from Noumea to La Tontouta airport.

But AFP journalists said many had quickly been rebuilt by Kanak militants.

Kanaks with scarfs over their faces, some armed with homemade catapults, were still manning a roadblock Tuesday on the road to the international airport.

- Anger over vote reform -

One of several militants on the roadblock, a masked 25-year-old with sunglasses who gave only his first name, Stanley, said the proposed voting reform "means the elimination of the Kanak people".

"That's what they don't understand over there -- we are already in the minority in our own home," he told AFP.

Indigenous Kanaks, who make up about 40 percent of the population, say the latest voting regulations would dilute their vote.

But more recent arrivals to the islands say they are being deprived of their right to take part in local elections.

The new law would extend voting rights to those who have lived in the territory for at least 10 years.

Prominent French figures including former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who followed the New Caledonia file closely while in office, have called for delay to the constitutional change.

"You can't make progress on the Caledonia file by issuing ultimatums," Valls said Sunday.

But anti-independence representatives want it pushed through.

Withdrawing "would prove the wreckers, the looters and the rioters right," said Nicolas Metzdorf, a New Caledonia MP for Macron's Renaissance party.

"Violence cannot replace the ballot box in a democracy," he added.

- 'Madness' -

In the Noumea beachside suburb of Magenta, AFP journalists saw abandoned roadblocks and locals clearing up the streets.

"I am so happy to see this and for the madness to end," said one tearful resident who gave only her first name, Sylvie.

France is considering extending a 12-day state of emergency, which has led to a night-time curfew, house arrests of suspected ringleaders, as well as a ban on TikTok, the sale of alcohol, carrying weapons and gatherings.

New Caledonia has been a French territory since the mid-1800s.

But almost two centuries on, opinion is split roughly along ethnic lines over whether the islands should be part of France, autonomous or independent.

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