New Caledonia closes airport, imposes curfew after violence

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The demonstrations that rocked the French Pacific territory came in response to proposed voting reforms (AFP/Theo Rouby)

By Lucy Craymer, Kirsty Needham and Gus Trompiz Reuters

Authorities in the French-ruled Pacific island of New Caledonia shut the international airport, imposed a curfew in the capital and called for police reinforcements after protests over the territory’s voting system turned violent.

Rioters were still active on Tuesday, around an hour before the start of a curfew, local state official High Commissioner Louis Le Franc told BFM TV.

“I hope with the help of the reinforcement I asked for we’ll be able to keep away all those criminals,” Le Franc said, adding that close to 50 police agents had been injured so far, including some who were attacked with guns.

New Caledonia’s government called for calm and condemned the destruction of property, saying 50 local businesses and around 200 vehicles had been burned.

The violence on the territory intensified when lawmakers in France’s National Assembly discussed a draft law to change New Caledonian’s voting statutes, with a final vote scheduled later on Tuesday.

The proposed changes would allow French residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years to vote in provincial elections – a move local leaders fear will dilute the vote of indigenous Kanak.

One of five island territories spanning the Indo-Pacific held by France, New Caledonia is rich in natural resources and is the centrepiece of French President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to increase Paris’s influence in the Pacific.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on X that the proposed new election rules were “a moral duty for those who believe in democracy”, but should not stand in the way of attempts to reach a larger political agreement.

Darmanin, whose portfolio includes France’s overseas territories, was tasked by Macron to seal a deal with Kanak leaders on the future status New Caledonia after decades of political tensions.

Macron’s office at the weekend said the president would invite representatives of the territory’s population to Paris for talks to reach a peaceful settlement.

The French government has been negotiating a rescue package for the loss-making New Caledonian nickel sector, including a commitment to supply Europe’s battery supply chain, but talks have stalled amid current political tensions.

Nickel miner Prony Resources said it activated a crisis unit to “maintain our industrial facilities and prevent any damage to our assets”. French miner Eramet did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for comment about its subsidiary there.

Video showed the police patrolling streets among burnt-out cars and plumes of smoke.

All gatherings have been banned in the greater Noumea area, and a liquor ban has been put in place while the international airport in Noumea has been closed and all commercial flights cancelled.

New Caledonia is 20,000 km (12,427 miles) from France, with a population of 270,000 including 41% Melanesian and 24% of European origin, mostly French.

A 1998 Noumea Accord helped end a decade of conflict by outlining a path to gradual autonomy and restricting voting to the indigenous Kanak and migrants living in New Caledonia before 1998.

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