23 May 2024

French President says 'peace, calm and security' in New Caledonia 'priority of all priorities'

4:29 pm on 23 May 2024
French President Emmanuel Macron speaking to the media upon arriving in New Caledonia for a two-day visit.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaking to the media upon arriving in New Caledonia for a two-day visit. Photo: Supplied / Media pool

French President Emmanuel Macron landed in Nouméa Thursday morning (about 9.20am NZ time) under heavy security.

Speaking to a pool of journalists, he has set as his top priority the return to peace as the French Pacific territory was still in the grip of violent unrest after 10 days of roadblocks, rioting, burning and looting.

The riots, related to New Caledonia's independence issue, started on 13 May, as the French National Assembly in Paris voted in favour of a constitutional amendment which would significantly modify the rules of eligibility for local elections.

The pro-independence movement objected to the text, saying this, by allowing people to vote locally after 10 years of uninterrupted residence, had a significant impact on their future representation.

To be fully enacted, the amendment remains to be ratified by a meeting of the Congress in Versailles (a joint sitting of both Upper and Lower Houses).

Earlier, Macron said he intended to call this joint sitting sometime before the end of June.

New Caledonia's pro-independence parties, as well as some pro-France parties, agree the current situation is not conducive to such a vote.

They are calling for the Versailles Congress joint sitting to be at least postponed or even that the controversial text be withdrawn altogether by the French government.

During his trip, Macron is also accompanied by Home Affairs and Overseas Minister Gérald Darmanin (who has been dealing with New Caledonia since 2022), Darmanin's deputy ("delegate" minister for overseas) Marie Guévenoux and Defence Minister Sébastien Lecornu (who was in charge of the French overseas portfolio before Darmanin).

He also brought with him several high-level public servants who would form into a "dialogue mission" tasked to restore contacts with New Caledonia's political stakeholders.

The "mission" will stay in New Caledonia "as long as it takes" and its goal will be to have a "local political dialogue with the view off arriving at a comprehensive political agreement" regarding New Caledonia's long-term future.

Along with the Presidential Airbus, a military A-400 also landed in New Caledonia, bringing more law and order reinforcements.

Macron is planning to meet political, but also economic, custom (traditional) and civil society representatives.

Doubts remained on whether all of the local parties would accept to meet the French Head of State.

Talking to the media, Macron said return to "peace, calm and security" was "the priority of all priorities".

This would also imply restoring normal "health care, goods and food supply" which have been gravely affected for the past 10 days.

"I am aware the population is suffering from a great crisis situation. We will also talk about economic reconstruction. For the political questions, the most sensitive ones, I came to talk about New Caledonia's future," he said.

"At the end of today, decisions and announcements will be made. I have come here with a sense of determination. And with a sense of respect and humility."

Since 13 May, the riots have caused the death of six people, destroyed an estimated 400 businesses for a total estimated cost, experts say, is now bordering €1 billion (NZ$1.8bn).

Asked by journalists if all this could be achieved in a matter of just a few hours, Macron replied: "We shall see. I have no set limit" (on New Caledonia stay).

Macron's schedule, during a visit initially set to last not more than 24 hours, remains sketchy.

It seems to have been extended to 48 hours.

In many parts of New Caledonia, French law enforcement (police, gendarmes) were still struggling to regain control of several strategic access roads, as well as several districts of the capital Nouméa.

On Thursday morning in Nouméa, Macron said the state of emergency, which was imposed Wednesday last week for an initial period of 12 days, "should not be extended", but that security forces currently deployed "will stay as long as necessary, even during the Paris 2024 Olympics".

But he also urged all stakeholders to "call for the roadblocks to be lifted".

"I am here because dialogue is necessary, but I'm calling on everyone's sense of responsibility."

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