France says it will quell unrest in New Caledonia ‘at all costs’

NOUMEA, France: French forces have broken down dozens of barricades as they try to retake the main road to New Caledonia’s airport, and a top official said Sunday that France would reclaim all of its Pacific territory from independence fighters “at all costs.”

After six nights of violence that left six people dead and hundreds injured, French government high commissioner Louis Le Franc warned in a televised speech that new raids would be organized on pro-independence strongholds.

“Republican order will be restored at all costs,” Le Franc said, adding that if separatists “want to use weapons, they risk the worst.”

New Caledonia, with a population of about 270,000, has been gripped by unrest since Monday over French plans to introduce new voting rules that would provide voting rights to tens of thousands of non-indigenous people.

The archipelago sandwiched between Australia and Fiji has long been racked by independence tensions. But this is the worst violence in decades.

This time, protesters set fire to vehicles, businesses and public buildings and took control of the main road leading to La Tontouta International Airport, which was closed to commercial flights.

Authorities say about 230 people have been detained and an estimated 3,200 tourists and other foreigners have been jailed. Australia and New Zealand pressed France for permission to evacuate their citizens.

France says about 1,000 security forces have been deployed to the islands.

Authorities said about 600 heavily armed police and paramilitary officers took part in an operation on Sunday to retake a 60-kilometer (40-mile) main road from the capital Noumea to the airport.

Le Franc said forces equipped with armored vehicles had “blown through” around 60 barricades on the road with only minor clashes.

However, piles of burned cars, wood and scrap accumulated around about 40 barricades will only be removed on Monday and Tuesday. The road was also severely damaged, the official added.

The highway is needed to restore supply chains because there is a shortage of groceries in the archipelago, as well as blood for transfusions. “We’re running out of food,” Le Franc said.

“Be Hopeful”

A night curfew, a state of emergency, a ban on TikTok and meals did not prevent major unrest on the night from Saturday to Sunday.

Unidentified groups started two fires and stormed a gas station, Le Franc reported, and also destroyed schools, pharmacies and supermarkets.

Local authorities said in a statement that schools would be closed until May 24. However, authorities said the situation was improving, adding that “the night was calmer.”

Le Franc said security forces would now carry out “harassment” raids to reclaim other parts of Pacific territory held by pro-independence groups.

“Don’t lose hope,” he told people who had formed ad hoc groups to defend their neighborhoods, while warning against violence that could spark a “widespread conflagration.”

“Believe me, it will all end” – Le Francadded.

In Wellington, Foreign Minister Winston Peters said New Zealand’s military had “completed preparations” for repatriation flights.

Australian tourist Maxwell Winchester and his wife Tiffany were barricaded at a resort on the airport road for several days after they were due to leave Noumea.

“They basically burned down every highway exit and every road that could get anywhere,” he told AFP.

“We would soon run out of food,” he said, adding: “Every night we had to sleep with one eye open… worried that they would come to plunder us.”

“This morning, at the exit not far from here, the military police passed by and there was a shooting,” Winchester said.

“Spiral of violence”

New Caledonia has been a French territory since the mid-19th century.

Nearly two centuries later, its politics are still dominated by the debate over whether the islands should be part of France, autonomous or independent, with opinions divided roughly along ethnic lines.

The indigenous Kanaks make up about 39 percent of the population, but are typically poorer and have fewer years of education than European Caledonians. Kanaka groups say the latest voting laws would dilute the Kanaka vote.

French officials have accused a separatist group known as CCAT of waging the violence and placed at least 10 of its activists under house arrest.

On Friday, CCAT called for “a time of calm to end the spiral of violence” – AFP