19 May 2024

New Caledonia unrest: Uneasy calm sets in as 'massive' reinforcements arrive

9:49 pm on 19 May 2024
French armed forces have secured Nouméa's international airport.

French armed forces have secured Nouméa's international airport. Photo: Supplied/NC la 1ère

As New Caledonia entered its fifth night of grave unrest, an uneasy calm had settled in the capital Nouméa and its suburbs, where scenes of violence, arson and confrontation erupted throughout Friday.

A contingent of about 1,000 police and army reinforcements have left the military air base of Castres (near Marseille) for the French Pacific archipelago.

Their main mission is to back the contingent already on the ground, estimated at about 1,700, including riot and crowd control squads. This would bring the total of French armed forces and law enforcement personnel to some 2,700.

Soldiers would mainly focus on securing Nouméa's international airport and wharf and restoring traffic on the main road axes.

Apart from police, army and gendarmes, the number also included firefighters who would assist to extinguish the numerous blazes in Nouméa and its surroundings.

"These are zones where hundreds of rioters are waiting to engage with law enforcement agencies," French High Commissioner Louis Le Franc said during his daily press conference on Friday.

He also urged armed civilians, including members of so-called "civilian defence groups", to refrain from using guns and taking the law into their own hands.

According to his assessment, for the first time since the riots began, the situation in Nouméa's suburbs had relatively eased, but law enforcement agencies still had not regained control of the situation in central Nouméa.

"With massive reinforcement, we will soon be able to regain control of these areas," he said.

The hottest points in Nouméa were the districts of Kamere, Montravel and Vallée-du-Tir.

On Thursday night, more buildings, schools and residences were set ablaze by groups of mostly young rioters.

Police vehicles were also stolen and later seen being driven by parading rioters brandishing the "Kanaky" pro-independence flag.

Three policemen were also injured while opposing a looting attempt at a local armoury, Le Franc said.

A dusk-to-dawn curfew remained in place, in addition to the 12 days of State of Emergency declared by the French government on Wednesday.

Since the riots began, five people have died, including two French gendarmes.

A large crowd in front of a supermarket in New Caledonia's capital.

A large group of locals gathers outside a supermarket in the capital. Photo: Supplied/NC la 1ère

Food and medical supplies

The planes flown from France (but also from French Polynesia), described as an "air lift", were also carrying essential food, medical supplies and blood reserves.

Food rationing was enforced in most retail outlets, under supervision from neighbourhood watch "civil defence" groups who were ensuring consumers did not take too many essential items at the time.

One vigilante said his group maintained a dialogue with the young rioters to ensure there were no attacks during the food distribution.

However, French High Commissioner Le Franc said there was sufficient food in stock to last two months - the issue was accessing shops and service stations.

Meanwhile, an estimated 700 people in New Caledonia were in need of dialysis.

Medical staff at the central Medipole hospital in Nouméa told local media they already had to reduce the number of weekly treatments from three to two, and that many patients were now at risk of dying.

Earlier this week, one mother in labour lost her child because she could not be transported to the hospital in time.

It was also reported that one person in need of dialysis was found dead at his residence.

A car is burning on the Normandie provincial road, outside Noumea on May 16, 2024, amid protests linked to a debate on a constitutional bill aimed at enlarging the electorate for upcoming elections of the overseas French territory of New Caledonia.

Cars and buildings have been burnt throughout the capital. Photo: AFP / Delphine Mayeur

Economy on its knees

One of the main worries now confronting New Caledonia after five days of destruction was its economic situation.

The local chamber of commerce estimated that the damage caused to the economic and industrial fabric had already reached two hundred million Euros.

Over the past five days, about 100 companies' property had been destroyed, putting thousands of jobs at short-term threat.

French economy minister Bruno Le Maire said he had held a conference call with local business stakeholders, as well as insurance companies and that an "economic crisis cell" would now be in place to "reconstruct and kick-start" New Caledonia's economy.

France was contemplating paying some sort of "swift and fair emergency compensations" to the affected businesses and industries, possibly as early as next week.

Calls for peace

In a statement, the Pacific Elders' Voice urged everyone involved to "act responsibly" and invoke the "Pacific Way" during the crisis.

"The Pacific Elders' Voice stands ready to assist in fostering dialogue and progress to ensure the resolution of this long-standing situation in New Caledonia, that is threatening its peace and progress, as well as ensure justice for the Kanaky people in their quest for dignity and human rights."

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