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France declares state of emergency amid protests in New Caledonia

The French government declared a state of emergency in New Caledonia on Wednesday as it worked to quell deadly riots in the semi-autonomous French Pacific territory.

French authorities have undertaken what they called a “massive” mobilization of security forces since violent protests erupted this week in New Caledonia against a proposed amendment to the French Constitution that would change local voting rules on the territory. A vote in the French parliament approving the amendment on Tuesday sparked deadly riots overnight.

“The priority is to restore order, calm and serenity,” French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said on Wednesday.

The French government said more than 1,800 security agents were already in the territory and that 500 reinforcements would arrive in the next 24 hours. During a crisis meeting, Mr. Attal said the army was deployed to secure the ports and the airport.

Several businesses and public buildings, including schools, were looted or burned, according to the French High Commission. Four people died in the riots, including a law enforcement officer, officials said. And hundreds of others were injured, including 64 police officers and gendarmes, the High Commission of the Republic in New Caledonia said in a press release. statement.

Nearly 200 people had been arrested as of Thursday local time, the statement said, and the Interior Ministry had issued five arrest warrants for those suspected of sponsoring the riots.

The state of emergency, which will last 12 days, gives authorities more police powers, allowing them to enact travel bans, place people under house arrest, ban demonstrations and carry out raids without control normal judicial procedure.

President Emmanuel Macron, who called a crisis meeting on Wednesday, expressed his “deep emotion” at the deaths and his gratitude to the French security forces, his office said in a statement.

“Any violence is intolerable and will be the subject of an implacable response” to ensure the restoration of order, the statement said, adding that Mr Macron had welcomed calls for calm made by other officials.

In a sign of the seriousness with which the authorities are treating the situation, Mr Macron postponed a trip planned for Thursday to inaugurate a new nuclear reactor in Normandy.

France annexed New Caledonia, a handful of islands with a population of around 270,000, in 1853. It was one of the few colonies, along with Algeria, that France deliberately populated with white settlers. Indigenous Kanaks now make up about 40 percent of the population, while Europeans make up about a quarter.

The prospect of independence and long-standing social inequalities have fueled decades of tension in the territory. The territory, which enjoys rare autonomy in France, has organized three referendums on independence since 2018; all were rejected.

After armed conflict left dozens dead in the 1980s – an uprising known as “the Events” – the French government struck a deal with independence activists who promised change.

The proposed constitutional change – which expands the right of French citizens to vote in provincial elections – has struck a new chord. New Caledonia’s independence activists have expressed fears that this will weaken their movement and reflect a more aggressive attempt by the French government to assert its will in the territory.

New Caledonia is a crucial anchor point for France in the Indo-Pacific region, and French officials have warned that an independent New Caledonia, with vast territorial waters and nickel, could quickly fall under the influence of China.

New Caledonia’s electoral rolls have been frozen since 2007, with only those on the 1998 list considered eligible to vote in subsequent local elections. The amendment gives the right to vote to all French citizens who have lived in the territory for 10 years, increasing the lists by around 20,000 to 25,000 people, according to Adrian Muckle, a history lecturer at Victoria University from Wellington in New Zealand. an expert on New Caledonia.

Tensions have increased in recent weeks, with protests turning violent on Monday evening.

To try to ease the tension, Mr Macron’s government has promised not to pass the constitutional change – which would require convening a special session of parliament for a vote – before the end of June. He also invited pro- and anti-independence groups to talks to try to reach a local agreement.

The Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front, or FLNKS, the main independence group, condemned the vote on the constitutional amendment in a statement Wednesday but also called for calm.

The French government’s proposal to organize negotiations constitutes an “opportunity” to ensure that “the demands of everyone, including those of those demonstrating, can be heard and taken into account”.

The French High Commission in New Caledonia said the curfew imposed Tuesday in Nouméa, the capital, would remain in force, along with a ban on all public gatherings. Nouméa International Airport has been closed since Tuesday, all commercial flights have been canceled and local authorities have announced that schools will remain closed until further notice.

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News Source : www.nytimes.com

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