New Caledonia: Macron welcomes “clear progress”, first evacuations in sight – 05/21/2024 at 04:45

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Burned vehicles lie on a road leading to Nouméa, in the French territory of New Caledonia, May 20, 2024 (AFP / Theo Rouby)

The first evacuation flights are to take place on Tuesday to exfiltrate tourists stuck in New Caledonia, a French territory in the South Pacific still at a standstill after a week of riots, despite “clear progress” in terms of security praised by Emmanuel Macron.

Eight days after the start of this outbreak of violence in reaction to a constitutional reform decried by the separatists, the executive decided to mobilize the military “for a time” in order to “protect public buildings” and relieve the police and gendarmes, indicated the Elysée.

“The return to calm continues throughout the territory,” wrote the State representative in New Caledonia, High Commissioner Louis Le Franc, in a press release published Tuesday morning.

But Nouméa and its surrounding area continued to be the scene of clashes and the roadblocks even expanded in places during the night, noted an AFP journalist, to whom several witnesses reported significant detonations in the neighborhood. by Tuband.

Six people have been killed since the start of the violence, on an unprecedented scale in nearly 40 years in the Oceanian archipelago. Among the dead are two mobile gendarmes whose remains were brought back to France by military plane on Monday.

While the closure of Nouméa international airport to commercial flights was extended until Thursday, Australia and New Zealand, which have been trying for several days to repatriate their hundreds of stranded nationals, announced Tuesday morning the sending several flights to evacuate them.

The New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters, indicated that his government had chartered a flight to Nouméa, leaving late in the morning to repatriate fifty of its nationals, while his Australian counterpart Penny Wong announced the sending in the day of two planes which will evacuate “Australian tourists and others”.

– “Very serious error” –

Despite the massive deployment of internal security forces, which now exceed 2,700 personnel in New Caledonia, the situation remains “precarious”, by the authorities’ own admission.

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A road blockade in Nouméa, May 20, 2024 in New Caledonia (AFP / Theo Rouby)

The main non-independence figures of the archipelago, gathered at a press conference in Nouméa, however called for continuing the examination of the constitutional bill, which must be adopted in Congress before the end of June.

Its withdrawal would be “a very serious error” which would “prove reason to the thugs, the looters and the rioters”, asserted the Renaissance deputy of New Caledonia, Nicolas Metzdorf.

The president of the Rassemblement-LR group at the Caledonian Congress, Virginie Ruffenach, said that “terrorism must not win, violence must not win”.

While the crisis threatens to deepen, calls have multiplied, from the left to the far right, including the majority and even the loyalist mayor of Nouméa, to demand a postponement of this reform which provides for the thaw of the electorate in the provincial elections, crucial in the archipelago.

type="image/webp">Police patrol the Magenta district of Nouméa, New Caledonia, May 18, 2024 (AFP / Delphine Mayeur)
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Police patrol the Magenta district of Nouméa, New Caledonia, May 18, 2024 (AFP / Delphine Mayeur)

This thaw would have the consequence of marginalizing the voices of the indigenous Kanak community, denounce the separatists.

At the end of the third Defense Council organized in less than a week, the Elysée, however, did not raise the question of the possible extension of the state of emergency, in place since Wednesday.

This exceptional situation cannot be extended beyond 12 days without submitting a text to Parliament.

While the specter of a shortage of food and medicine looms over the Nouméa metropolitan area, the High Commissioner assured that 21 supermarkets have reopened “and are gradually being replenished”.

– Another restless night –

“Road clearance operations are continuing,” the press release also underlines. But the night was still turbulent: Tuesday morning, on the express road leading to the international airport, the warehouse of an office supply company was on fire, emitting thick black smoke.

Two piled-up car wrecks form a barrier 200 meters away, young hooded men filtering the passage of the cars.

In Doumbea, an important town in the conurbation, it was the cultural center that was ransacked. “The young people wanted to burn everything, we managed to stop them,” a CCAT activist told AFP.

type="image/webp">A street blocked by burned debris, in the Magenta district, in Nouméa, on May 18, 2024 in New Caledonia (AFP / Delphine Mayeur)
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A street blocked by burned debris, in the Magenta district, in Nouméa, on May 18, 2024 in New Caledonia (AFP / Delphine Mayeur)

Already on Sunday, the authorities had announced a vast gendarmerie operation to free the strategic axis of around fifty kilometers linking Nouméa to La Tontouta airport, but the roadblocks had barely been “unblocked” and were reinstalled by the separatists.

Most are “filtering” and allow passage to certain vehicles, including firefighters or ambulances at all hours, supports the Field Action Coordination Cell (CCAT), an independentist collective accused by the State of fueling violence but who claims to remain “in a peaceful approach”.

type="image/webp">A roadblock set up by separatists in La Tamoa, dependent on the commune of Paita, on May 19, 2024 in New Caledonia (AFP / Delphine Mayeur)
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A roadblock set up by separatists in La Tamoa, dependent on the commune of Paita, on May 19, 2024 in New Caledonia (AFP / Delphine Mayeur)

The exceptional state of emergency measures are maintained, namely the curfew between 6:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. (9:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. in Paris), the ban on gatherings, the transport of weapons and the sale of alcohol and the banning of the TikTok application – the ban on which will be contested by defenders of freedoms before the Council of State on Tuesday at 11:30 a.m.

The Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) called for “preserving what little remains” of the New Caledonian economy, citing “already catastrophic” economic and social “consequences”.

According to the CCI, 150 companies were “looted and burned”, and the industrial zone of Ducos, “the true economic heart of New Caledonia, is abandoned to its fate”.

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