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France imposes emergency in Pacific territory of New Caledonia as violent unrest turns deadly

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Paris, May 16 (AP) France imposed an emergency on Wednesday in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia for at least 12 days, boosting security forces’ powers to quell deadly unrest in the archipelago where indigenous people have long sought independence.

Armed clashes and other violence that erupted Monday following protests over voting reforms have left four people dead, including a gendarme, and injured more than 300, French authorities said.

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French military forces were being deployed to protect ports and airports, to free up police and security forces battling looting, arson and other violence, Prime Minister Gabriel Attal announced as the emergency measures kicked in at 8 p.m. Paris time, which was 5 a.m. on Thursday in New Caledonia.

“Nothing can ever justify violence,” Attal said. “Our absolute priority for the next few hours is the return to order and calm.”

The emergency measures give authorities greater powers to tackle the violence, including the possibility of house detention for people deemed a threat to public order and expanded powers to conduct searches, seize weapons and restrict movements, with possible jail time for violators.

The last time France imposed such measures on one of its overseas territories was in 1985, also in New Caledonia, the Interior Ministry said.

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France’s government also rushed hundreds of police reinforcements to the island, where pro-independence supporters have long pushed to break free from France. The Interior Ministry said 500 additional officers were expected within hours on the archipelago to bolster 1,800 police and gendarmes already there.

There have been more than 130 arrests so far, French authorities said.

Speaking to broadcaster France Info on Wednesday, Anne Clément, a resident of the capital, Noumea, hailed security forces reinforcements because the unrest has morphed into “a real urban guerrilla war”.

People have been confined to their homes for two days, terrified by “shooting from all sides”, Clement, a nursery director, told the French broadcaster. “We’ve stopped eating, we’ve stopped living, we’ve stopped sleeping,” she added.

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“I don’t see how we could get out of the situation without the state of emergency,” she said.

There have been decades of tensions on the archipelago between Indigenous Kanaks seeking independence and descendants of colonisers who want to remain part of France.

After a two-hour security meeting Wednesday with French President Emmanuel Macron and top ministers, Attal told parliament in Paris that the state of emergency would aim “to restore order in the shortest time possible”.

This week’s unrest erupted as the French legislature in Paris debated amending the French constitution to make changes to voter lists in New Caledonia. The National Assembly on Wednesday approved a bill that will, among other changes, allow residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years to cast ballots in provincial elections.

Opponents say the measure will benefit pro-France politicians in New Caledonia and further marginalise indigenous Kanak people. They once suffered from strict segregation policies and widespread discrimination. The vast archipelago of about 270,000 people east of Australia is 10 time zones ahead of Paris.

From Macron down, France’s government made repeated calls for an end to the violence.

The territory’s top French official, High Commissioner Louis Le Franc, warned of the possibility of “many deaths” if calm isn’t restored. A police station was among dozens of places that were attacked, with shots fired, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said. Posting on X, he said a gendarme who had been shot was among the dead.

In Paris, Macron emphasised the need for political dialogue. Rival political parties in New Caledonia also jointly called for calm, saying in a statement: “We have to continue to live together.”

An overnight curfew in New Caledonia was extended to Thursday. Schools and the main airport remained closed, Le Franc said.

“The situation is not serious, it is very serious,” Le Franc said. “We have entered a dangerous spiral, a deadly spiral.”

He said some residents in the capital and neighbouring municipalities formed “self-defence groups” to protect their homes and businesses.

New Caledonia became French in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III, Napoleon’s nephew and heir. It became an overseas territory after World War II, with French citizenship granted to all Kanaks in 1957.

A peace deal between rival factions was reached in 1988. A decade later, France promised to grant New Caledonia political power and broad autonomy and hold up to three successive referendums.

The three referendums were organized between 2018 to 2021 and a majority of voters chose to remain part of France instead of backing independence. The pro-independence Kanak people rejected the results of the last referendum in 2021, which they boycotted because it was held at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP)

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