Unprecedented insurrection in New Caledonia - Macron

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks in Nouméa, New Caledonia Photo: 23 May 2024
President Macron said restoring peace was the "absolute priority" [Reuters]
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President Emmanuel Macron has described rioting in the French-Pacific territory of New Caledonia as an "unprecedented insurrection movement" that no-one saw coming.

During a tour of police headquarters in the capital Nouméa on Thursday, he said the coming days and weeks would be difficult, but Paris would "go until the end" to restore calm.

Six people, including two police officers, have been killed and hundreds more wounded in riots, looting and arson triggered by a controversial electoral reform.

New Caledonia, a group of islands between Australia and Fiji, has been a French territory since the 19th Century. Tensions have been high for some time between the central government in Paris and indigenous Kanaks who make up about 40% of the tiny archipelago.

Kanak protesters fear that a new law giving voting rights to French residents who have lived there for more than 10 years will dilute the influence of the indigenous population.

However, the violence that began on 13 May is the worst unrest seen there since the 1980s.

A state of emergency has been imposed and President Macron has said that a 3,000-strong force deployed from France will remain - even during the Paris Summer Olympics if required.

Arriving in Nouméa after a 24-hour flight from Paris, President Macron said he wanted the return of peace, calm and security "as quickly as possible".

"That is the absolute priority," the French leader said.

He paid respects to the victims of the riots, as he met local political and business leaders.

The summit included separatist leaders, who said beforehand that they hoped it could "breathe new life" into discussions with France.

Mr Macron admitted that the most delicate conversation to be had was that of politics - and of the future of New Caledonia, the BBC's Australia correspondent Katy Watson reports, adding that he will have a huge job on his hands.

Police have held 269 people since the violence began on 13 May, and New Caledonia is currently under a state of emergency.

But Mr Macron hinted that the emergency status could be lifted in the coming days, saying: "I personally believe that the state of emergency should not be extended".

New Caledonia has a population of about 300,000 people, including 112,000 indigenous Kanaks.

Under the 1998 Nouméa Accord, France agreed to give the territory more political autonomy and to limit voting in provincial and assembly elections to those who were residents then.

More than 40,000 French nationals have moved to New Caledonia since.

Last week, the National Assembly in Paris proposed granting voting rights to French residents who have lived in the territory for 10 years.

Because this requires a change to the constitution, the measure faces further hurdles.

The Nouméa agreement allowed for three referendums on the country's future. Independence was rejected in all instances.

The first two showed slim majorities for remaining part of France. The third, in December 2021, was boycotted by pro-independence parties because it was held during the Covid pandemic.