President Emmanuel Macron has described the unrest in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia as an “unprecedented movement of insurrection” that no one saw coming.

During a visit to police headquarters in the capital Nouméa on Thursday, he said the coming days and weeks would be difficult but that Paris would “go all the way” to restore calm. Six people, including two police officers, were killed and hundreds injured in rioting, looting and fires sparked by a controversial electoral reform.

New Caledonia, a group of islands between Australia and Fiji, has been a French territory since the 19th century. Tensions have been high between the central government in Paris and the indigenous Kanaks, who make up about 40% of the small archipelago. Kanak protesters fear that a new law, which grants voting rights to French residents who have lived there for more than 10 years, will dilute the influence of the indigenous population.

However, the violence that began on May 13 is the worst unrest seen there since the 1980s. A state of emergency has been imposed and President Macron has stated that a force of 3,000 sent from France will remain – even during the Olympic Games in Paris summer if necessary.

Arriving in Nouméa after a 24-hour flight from Paris, President Macron said he wanted the return of peace, calm and security “as quickly as possible”. “This is the absolute priority,” said the French leader. He paid tribute to victims of the riots while meeting local political and business leaders.

The summit included separatist leaders, who said earlier they hoped it could “give new life” to discussions with France. Macron admitted the most delicate conversation to be had was about politics – and the future of New Caledonia, according to BBC Australia correspondent Katy Watson, who added that he has a huge job ahead of him.

Police have detained 269 people since the violence began on May 13, and New Caledonia is currently under a state of emergency. However, Macron suggested the state of emergency could be lifted in the coming days, saying: “I personally believe that the state of emergency should not be prolonged.”

New Caledonia has a population of around 300,000 people, including 112,000 indigenous Kanaks. Under the 1998 Nouméa Agreement, France agreed to give the territory more political autonomy and limit voting in provincial and assembly elections to residents at the time. More than 40,000 French people have moved to New Caledonia since then. Last week, the National Assembly in Paris proposed granting voting rights to French residents who have lived in the territory for 10 years. As this requires a change in the constitution, the measure faces more obstacles.

The Nouméa agreement allowed for three referenda on the country’s future. Independence was rejected in every instance. The first two showed small majorities to remain part of France. The third, in December 2021, was boycotted by pro-independence parties because it was held during the Covid pandemic.


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