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France Declares State of Emergency Amid Protests in New Caledonia


France’s government declared a state of emergency in New Caledonia on Wednesday as it struggled to quell deadly riots in the semiautonomous French Pacific territory.

The French authorities have undertaken what they called a “massive” mobilization of security forces since violent protests broke out in New Caledonia this week over a proposed amendment to the French Constitution that would change local voting rules in the territory. A vote in France’s Parliament approving the amendment on Tuesday ignited riots overnight.

“The priority is to restore order, calm and serenity,” Gabriel Attal, France’s prime minister, told lawmakers on Wednesday.

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

Several businesses and public buildings, including schools, have been looted or set on fire, according to the French High Commission. Three people have died in connection with the riots, officials said, and hundreds of others have been wounded, including 64 police officers and gendarmes, the High Commission of the Republic in New Caledonia said in a statement. It was unclear if the death toll included that of a gendarme, who, the statement said, died on Wednesday.

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

The state of emergency, which will last 12 days, gives the authorities more policing powers, allowing them to enact traffic bans, put people under house arrest, ban protests and carry out raids without normal judicial oversight.

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

“All violence is intolerable and will be subject to a relentless response” to ensure that order is restored, the statement said, adding that Mr. Macron had welcomed appeals for calm from other officials.

In a sign of how seriously the authorities were treating the situation, Mr. Macron postponed a trip scheduled for Thursday to inaugurate a new nuclear reactor in Normandy.

France annexed New Caledonia, a smattering of islands with a population of about 270,000, in 1853. It was one of the few colonies, alongside Algeria, that France purposely 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 longstanding social inequality, has fueled decades of tensions in the territory. The territory, which has rare autonomy in France, has held three independence referendums since 2018; all have been voted down.

After armed conflict claimed dozens of lives there in the 1980s — an uprising known as “the Events” — the French government struck an agreement with pro-independence militants that promised change.

The proposed constitutional change — which expands French citizens’ eligibility to vote in provincial elections — touched a fresh nerve. Pro-independence activists in New Caledonia expressed fears that it would water down their movement and reflected a more aggressive attempt by the French government to assert its will over the territory.

New Caledonia is a crucial foothold for France in the Indo-Pacific region, and French officials have warned that an independent New Caledonia, flush with vast territorial waters and nickel, could quickly fall under China’s sway.

New Caledonia’s voter rolls have been effectively frozen since 2007, with only those who were listed in 1998 deemed eligible to vote in subsequent local elections. The amendment gives voting rights to all French citizens who have lived in the territory for 10 years, effectively increasing the rolls by about 20,000 to 25,000 people, according to Adrian Muckle, a senior lecturer in history at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand who is an expert on New Caledonia.

Tensions have built up over the past several weeks, with protests turning violent on Monday night.

In an attempt to ease the strain, Mr. Macron’s government has promised not to enact the constitutional change — which would require convening a special session of Parliament for a vote — until the end of June. It has also invited pro- and anti-independence groups for talks to try to strike a local deal.

The Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste, or FLNKS, the main pro-independence group, condemned the vote of the constitutional amendment in a statement on Wednesday but also appealed for calm.

It said the French government’s offer to organize talks was an “opportunity” to ensure that “each and everyone’s demands, including those who are protesting, can be heard and taken into account.”

The French High Commission in New Caledonia said that a curfew imposed on the capital, Noumea, on Tuesday would remain in place, as would a ban on all public gatherings. The international airport in Noumea has been shut since Tuesday, with all commercial flights canceled, and the local authorities said that schools would stay closed until further notice.





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