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France to declare state of emergency due to New Caledonia riots

Violent unrest in the French-ruled island saw vehicles torched and stores looted. Schools were shut and some residents armed themselves to protect their homes.
Last Updated : 15 May 2024, 14:06 IST
Last Updated : 15 May 2024, 14:06 IST

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Sydney: France will declare a state of emergency in the Pacific Island of New Caledonia on Wednesday after three people were killed in riots over a change in voting rules.

Violent unrest in the French-ruled island saw vehicles torched and stores looted. Schools were shut and some residents armed themselves to protect their homes.

The three dead were young indigenous Kanak, said a spokesman for New Caledonia's president Louis Mapou. A police official was injured and in a serious condition, French President Emmanuel Macron's office said.

Macron's office said a state of emergency would be adopted after a cabinet meeting to be held at 1430 GMT (8:00 pm IST).

"All violence is intolerable and will be met with an unyielding response," Macron's office said.

Rioting broke out this week as lawmakers in Paris debated whether to allow French residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years to vote in provincial elections - a move some local leaders fear will dilute the Kanak vote. The bill was adopted on Tuesday.

"Residents are terrorised, armed and organising themselves to make the rounds tonight and protect their homes," said Lilou Garrido Navarro Kherachi, 19, who drove around protestor blockades on Wednesday morning in the island's capital Noumea.

She said she heard gunfire and saw burning cars and buildings, including a ruined veterinary clinic where neighbours had evacuated the animals before the fire spread.

Police were outnumbered by protesters, she told Reuters.

The state of emergency gives authorities additional powers, including the ability to ban gatherings and oblige people to stay at home.

Electoral reform is the latest flashpoint in a decades-long tussle over France's role in the mineral-rich island, which lies in the southwest Pacific, some 1,500 km east of Australia.

France annexed the island in 1853 and gave the colony the status of overseas territory in 1946. It has long been rocked by pro-independence movements.

LOOTING

New Caledonia is the world's No. 3 nickel miner, and residents have been hit by a crisis in the sector, with one in five living under the poverty threshold.

"Politicians have a huge share of responsibility," said 30-year-old Henri, who works in a hotel in Noumea. "Loyalist politicians, who are descendents of colonialists, say colonisation is over, but Kanak politicians don't agree. There are huge economic disparities," he said.

Henri, who declined to give his full name, said there was significant looting amid the riots, with the situation most dangerous at night.

The French government has said the change in voting rules was needed so elections would be democratic. It has invited pro- and anti-independence camps for talks in Paris on the future of the island.

The major pro-independence political group, Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS), which condemned the violence, said it would accept Macron's offer of dialogue and was willing to work toward an agreement "that would allow New Caledonia to follow its path toward emancipation".

Most residents were staying indoors. With stores closed, breastfeeding mothers were organising to share milk with mothers who have none left to feed their babies, said witness Garrido Navarro Kherachi.

She said she moved to New Caledonia when she was eight years old, and has never been back to France. Although eligible to vote under the new rules, she says she won't "out of respect for the Kanak people".

"That would give me the right to vote but I don't feel I know enough about the history of Caledonia and the struggle of the Kanak people to allow me to vote," she said.

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Published 15 May 2024, 14:06 IST

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