New Caledonia airport won’t reopen for at least a week

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New Caledonia’s airport has been closed since deadly riots sparked a state of emergency declaration.
New Caledonia’s airport has been closed since deadly riots sparked a state of emergency declaration.

New Caledonia’s international airport will remain closed for at least another week, its operator says, almost two weeks after rioting erupted on the French-ruled Pacific island over a contested electoral reform.

Seven people have died in the riots, in which cars and businesses have been torched and shops looted.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who visited the island on Thursday to try and ease tensions, has hit pause on the reform but fallen short of pro-independence parties’ demands that it be shelved altogether.

Hitting pause was “a gesture of appeasement”, Macron said in an interview published by Le Parisien newspaper. 

“But I will never make a decision to postpone or suspend under the pressure of violence,” he said.

If pro and anti-independence parties on the island fail to reach a broad deal on the island’s future, Macron would either call a special congress of the two houses of parliament, as planned, to ratify the electoral reform.

Or, he said, he could call a referendum.

Macron also urged pro-independence protesters who said they would remain mobilised to lift their barricades.

French police
The protests are the latest flashpoint in a decades-long tussle over France’s role in New Caledonia. (AP PHOTO)

“There is a political background to this violence,” Macron said, but that’s not the case for many rioters, he added.

“What do the looting of a supermarket, burning of a school, ransoming people … have to do with the war for independence? 

“Nothing – this is high banditry,” he told Le Parisien.

The protests are the latest flashpoint in a decades-long tussle over France’s role on the island.

Named by British explorer Captain James Cook in 1774, France annexed New Caledonia in 1853 and gave the colony the status of overseas territory in 1946. 

A road block in central Noumea
Emmanuel Macron has urged pro-independence protesters in New Caledonia to lift their barricades. (AP PHOTO)

Tensions between the indigenous Kanaks and Paris erupted into violent conflicts in the 1970s and rumbled until they were finally settled in the 1998 Noumea Accord, which outlined a path to gradual autonomy via three referendums.

In all three, independence was rejected. 

However, many Kanaks refused to participate in the 2021 vote due to health concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving lingering resentment over the result.

New Caledonia is the world’s third-largest nickel miner but the sector is in crisis and one in five residents lives below the poverty threshold.

Electoral rolls were frozen in 1998 under the Noumea Accord, which ended a decade of violence and established a pathway to gradual autonomy.

The protesters fear the electoral reform would dilute the votes of indigenous Kanaks, who make up 40 per cent of the island’s population of 270,000 people. 

Reuters