Macron arrives in New Caledonia for high-stakes talks

France has chosen to end a state of emergency on the island to facilitate dialogue.

France has chosen to end a state of emergency on the island to facilitate dialogue. Photo: Getty

French President Emmanuel Macron has landed in the Pacific island of New Caledonia for a day of talks during which he will aim to turn the page on deadly riots triggered by a contested electoral reform.

Any attempt to convince the rioters to get off the streets will be a challenge, as will trying to persuade the French-ruled territory’s pro-independence parties who blame Macron and his government for the riots that he is there to help.

“My aim here, along with the ministers and the whole government, is to stand by the people,” Macron said on Thursday.

“The return to peace, calm and security is the top priority. We will tackle the most sensitive political issues to discuss the future of New Caledonia.”

The protesters fear the electoral reform, already passed by MPs in mainland France some 20,000 kilometres away, will dilute the votes of indigenous Kanaks, who make up 40 per cent of the island’s population of 270,000 people.

As it is a constitutional reform, it requires a meeting of both houses of parliament for it to be ratified. Macron has yet to announce a date for that.

“The president is there to initiate discussions which should allow a global political agreement to emerge,” Prime Minister Gabriel Attal told the Senate.

“This is the only way to reach … a path of forgiveness and a path to the future.”

Macron, he said, would appoint a team of senior officials who will stay on the island as long as needed to help achieve that.

Aides say Macron has no pre-conceived plan and will talk with all parties about reconstruction following the riots, as well as about politics. He is unlikely to rush into any major decision.

This may disappoint some local groups, including the pro-independence Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS), who want Macron to shelve the electoral reform that Paris says is needed to improve democracy on the island. The reform would allow French residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years to vote in provincial elections.

“We are expecting that if he (Macron) travels to Kanaky he will make some strong announcement that he is withdrawing this electoral bill, but if he is just coming here as a provocation that might just turn bad,” Jimmy Naouna from FLNKS told Reuters.

France annexed New Caledonia in 1853 and gave the colony the status of overseas territory in 1946. It is the world’s No. 3 nickel miner but the sector is in crisis and one in five residents lives below the poverty threshold.

Electoral rolls were frozen in 1998 under the Noumea Accord, which ended a decade of violence and established a pathway to gradual autonomy. Critics say that has now been jeopardised.

Six people have been killed in the riots, which have left a trail of looted shops and torched cars and businesses. The French government has sent hundreds of additional police to help bring things back under control.


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