In riot-hit New Caledonia, Macron says priority is return to calm


President Emmanuel Macron pushed Thursday for a lifting of protesters' barricades in riot-hit New Caledonia and pledged that reinforced police forces battling deadly unrest on the French Pacific archipelago "will stay as long as necessary," even when French security services will be focused in weeks ahead on the massive security operation for the Paris Olympics.

By binning his previously announced schedule to fly across the globe from Paris on his presidential jet, Macron brought the weight of his office and his personal touch to bear on the crisis that has left six dead and a trail of destruction on the archipelago that is a global source of nickel, used in batteries and other everyday necessities, and where Indigenous Kanak people have long sought independence from France.

Pro-independence Kanak leaders, who a week earlier declined Macron's offer of talks by video, turned out Thursday to greet him in person, bringing them together at a meeting in the capital Nouméa, with rival loyalist leaders who want New Caledonia, which became French in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III, to remain part of France.

Macron opened the meeting by calling for a minute of silence for the six people killed in shootings during the violence, including two gendarmes, and read out their names. He subsequently urged local leaders to use their clout to help restore order. He said a state of emergency imposed by Paris the previous week to boost police powers could be lifted only if local leaders call for a clearing away of barricades that demonstrators and people trying to protect their neighborhoods have erected in Nouméa and beyond.

"It's a simple phrase and it's best to say because it can have an effect," Macron said.

Barricades have turned some parts of Nouméa into no-go zones and made traveling around perilous, including for the sick requiring medical treatment and for families fretting about where to find food and water after shops were pillaged and torched. Unrest continued to simmer even as Macron jetted in, despite a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew and more than 1,000 reinforcements for the archipelago's police and gendarmes, now 3,000-strong, the French leader said.

"I will be very clear here. These forces will remain as long as necessary. Even during the Olympic Games and Paralympics," which open in Paris on July 26, Macron said.

It was late Tuesday in Paris when he left on the 16,000-kilometer (10,000-mile) trip but, because of the distance and time difference, already Thursday morning in New Caledonia when he arrived, with his interior and defense ministers in tow.

At Nouméa's La Tontouta International Airport, used for special evacuation flights for stranded tourists but still closed to commercial services, Macron said on arrival that he wanted "to be alongside the people and see a return to peace, calm and security as soon as possible."

Macron added that he would discuss the resources needed to repair the damage wrought by days of shootings, arson and other violence that has left at least six dead. The destruction is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of euros (dollars).

"We will discuss questions of economic reconstruction, support and rapid response, and the most delicate political questions, as we talk about the future of New Caledonia," he said. "By the end of the day, decisions will be taken and announcements will be made."

When asked by a reporter whether he thought a 12-hour visit was enough, Macron responded: "We will see. I don't have a limit."

The violence erupted May 13 as the French legislature in Paris debated amending the French Constitution to make changes to New Caledonia voter lists. The National Assembly approved a bill that will, among other changes, allow residents who have lived in New Caledonia for at least 10 years to cast ballots in provincial elections.

Opponents fear the measure will benefit pro-France politicians in New Caledonia and further marginalize the Kanaks, who once suffered from strict segregation policies and widespread discrimination.

There have been decades of tensions over the issue of independence between the Kanaks and descendants of colonists and others who settled in the territory of 270,000 people and want to remain part of France.

Macron, in the past, has facilitated dialogue in New Caledonia between pro-independence and pro-France factions. The efforts culminated in a 2018 referendum, the first of three, in which New Caledonians voted to remain part of France by a narrow margin.

The violence is the most severe in New Caledonia since the 1980s, the last time France imposed on state of emergency on the archipelago. French authorities say more than 280 people have been arrested.