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Macron is making a surprise trip to New Caledonia amid deadly unrest and indigenous frustration

PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron is making a surprise trip to riot-hit New Caledonia , the French Pacific territory that has been gripped by days of deadly unrest and where indigenous people have long sought independence.
In this photo provided by the Australian Department of Defence, Australian and other tourists board an Australian Airforce Hercules as they prepare to depart from Magenta Airport in Noumea, New Caledonia, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Australia and New Zealand have sent airplanes to New Caledonia to begin bringing home stranded citizens from the violence-wracked French South Pacific territory. (LAC Adam Abela/Royal Australian Airfare via AP)

PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron is making a surprise trip to riot-hit New Caledonia, the French Pacific territory that has been gripped by days of deadly unrest and where indigenous people have long sought independence.

“He will go there tonight,” government spokesperson Prisca Thevenot said after a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday where the president said he'd decided to make the more than 33,000-kilometer (20,000-mile) round trip himself to the archipelago east of Australia.

Six people have been killed, including two gendarmes, and hundreds of others injured in New Caledonia amid armed clashes, looting and arson, raising new questions about Macron's handling of France's colonial legacy.

There have been decades of tensions between indigenous Kanaks who seek independence for the archipelago of 270,000 people, and descendants of colonizers and colonists who want to remain part of France.

The unrest erupted May 13 as the French legislature in Paris debated amending the French Constitution to make changes to New Caledonia voter lists. Opponents fear the measure will benefit pro-France politicians in New Caledonia and further marginalize Kanaks who once suffered from strict segregation policies and widespread discrimination.

The violence is the most severe to shake New Caledonia since the 1980s, when France also imposed emergency measures on the island that became French in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III.

Paris last Wednesday declared a 12-day minimum state of emergency on the island and rushed in 1,000 reinforcements to bolster security forces that lost control of parts of the capital, Nouméa.

“Faced with the outbreak of violence, the priority is the return of order to allow dialogue to resume in New Caledonia," Thevenot, the government spokeswoman, said. “We are clear: Much remains to be done before the return to normal. The government is fully mobilized."

She gave no details about how long Macron will stay or who he will meet.

But Macron will see the destruction that turned parts of Nouméa into no-go zones, with buildings torched, shops pillaged and barricades erected both by pro-independence supporters, some armed, and people banding together to protect livelihoods and homes.

With police given emergency powers and a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew in effect, French authorities say security forces are starting to contain unrest. They announced another 22 arrests Tuesday for a total number near 300.

The Associated Press could not reach those behind the unrest or from Kanak representatives, some of whom have called for calm.

The violence in New Caledonia has led to fresh discussion about France’s colonial past. Macron’s efforts to address that have largely focused on Africa, where France had colonies and where local frustration in some countries has led to recent calls for French forces to get out.

A priority for French authorities in New Caledonia since the weekend has been clearing the highway to Nouméa's international airport of barricades and the burned hulks of vehicles, raising the prospect for stranded tourists of being able to leave.

Australia and New Zealand sent planes to New Caledonia on Tuesday to begin bringing citizens home. Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said Australia received clearance from French authorities for two evacuation flights and would work on further ones.

Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs said 300 Australians were in New Caledonia. It did not immediately confirm whether the flights would evacuate other stranded foreign nationals, believed to number in the thousands.

New Zealand’s government announced an evacuation effort for about 50 citizens.

“New Zealanders in New Caledonia have faced a challenging few days — and bringing them home has been an urgent priority for the government,” Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters said. “In cooperation with France and Australia, we are working on subsequent flights in coming days.”


John Leicester reported from Le Pecq, France, and Keiran Smith from Newcastle, Australia.

Catherine Gaschka, John Leicester And Keiran Smith, The Associated Press