Macron says French troops will stay in New Caledonia ‘as long as necessary’

France’s president is visiting the Pacific territory where electoral reform plans have fuelled the worst unrest in more than 30 years.

three men in suits meet
Macron met key New Caledonian officials on Thursday [Ludovic Marin/Pool via AP Photo]

French President Emmanuel Macron has said French soldiers will remain in New Caledonia “as long as necessary” after more than a week of unrest triggered by French plans to change electoral rules in the Pacific island territory.

Macron arrived in New Caledonia’s capital Noumea on Thursday, amid continuing protests over voting reforms the Indigenous Kanak people say would dilute their vote and undermine their struggle for independence.

The reforms would allow French people who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years or more to vote in New Caledonia’s provincial elections.

About 3,000 soldiers have been sent from Paris since the violence began and could stay until the Olympic Games in Paris, which begin on July 26, Macron said.

Six people, including three young Kanaks, have been killed and about 280 people arrested since the protests broke out and a state of emergency was declared.

Macron observed a minute of silence for the people who had been killed and said if roadblocks and barricades were removed, he would be opposed to extending the state of emergency.

The French president also met the pro-independence President of the Government of New Caledonia Louis Mapou and the President of Congress Roch Wamytan, in a meeting at the residence of France’s high commissioner to New Caledonia in Noumea on Thursday.

Macron flew about 17,000km (10,500 miles) from mainland France to reach Noumea and was expected to remain in New Caledonia for around 12 hours.

Demonstrators waving New Caledonian flags lined the streets as the French president’s convoy made its way along the newly reopened road from the international airport to Noumea.

“I don’t know why our fate is being discussed by people who don’t even live here,” said Mike, a 52-year-old Kanak at a roadblock north of the capital, on the eve of Macron’s arrival.

people hold brightly coloured flags on a tropical street
People demonstrate as French President Emmanuel Macron’s motorcade drives past in Noumea in France’s Pacific territory of New Caledonia on Thursday [Ludovic Marin/Pool via AFP]

About 90 barricades put up by protesters had been cleared by heavily armed police and paramilitaries, but new barricades were still appearing the night before Macron arrived, according to the Reuters news agency.

Jimmy Naouna, from the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) of New Caledonia, said the pro-independence political party had called for protesters to remove the roadblocks, and urged Macron to drop the electoral reform plan.

“We are expecting if [Macron] travels to Kanaky, he will make some strong announcement that he is withdrawing this electoral bill, but if he is just coming here as a provocation, that might just turn bad,” Naouna said ahead of the French president’s arrival, using the island’s Indigenous name.

The Kanaks make up about 40 percent of the slightly more than 300,000 people who live in New Caledonia, which lies between Australia and Fiji in the Pacific Ocean.

In 1998, France agreed to cede the territory more political power and to limit voting in New Caledonia’s provincial and assembly elections to those who were residents of the island at the time, under the so-called Noumea Accord.

About 40,000 French citizens have moved to New Caledonia since 1998, and the changes expand the electoral roll to include those who have lived in the territory for 10 years.

The Noumea Accord also included a series of three independence referendums, with the last one taking place in December 2021 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pro-independence groups boycotted the vote, which backed remaining in France, and rejected the result.

Last week, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told the TV channel France 2 that Azerbaijan, alongside China and Russia, were “interfering” in New Caledonia.

“I regret that some of the Caledonian pro-independence leaders have made a deal with Azerbaijan,” Darmanin claimed.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies