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France readies state of emergency for Pacific territory as violent unrest turns deadly

PARIS (AP) — France announced Wednesday it is imposing a state of emergency in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia for at least 12 days, boosting security forces’ powers to quell deadly unrest that has left four people dead.

French government spokeswoman Prisca Thevenot announced the decision after a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday afternoon in Paris. It follows days of unrest in the Pacific territory and what Thevenot described as “scenes of chaos,” with a member of the security services reported among the four killed.

The emergency measures will give authorities greater powers to tackle the violence, including the possibility of house detention for people deemed a threat to public order and expanded powers to conduct searches, seize weapons and restrict movements, with possible jail time for violators. The last time France imposed such measures on one of its overseas territories was in 1985, also in New Caledonia, the Interior Ministry said.

“The priority is to restore order, calm, serenity,” Thevenot, the government spokeswoman, said. The emergency measures will go into force at 8 p.m. Paris time on Wednesday night, which is 5 a.m in New Caledonia.

“All violence will meet with an implacable response,” she added.

France’s government also rushed hundreds of police reinforcements to the island, where pro-independence supporters have long pushed to break free from France. The Interior Ministry said 500 additional officers were expected within hours on the archipelago to bolster 1,800 police and gendarmes already there.

After successive nights of unrest, French authorities reported the first deaths on Wednesday, with a gendarme among the four people killed. More than 300 people have been injured since Monday, when protests over voting changes pushed by Paris turned violent. There have also been more than 130 arrests, French authorities said.

Speaking to broadcaster France Info on Wednesday, Anne Clément, a resident of the capital, Noumea, hailed security forces reinforcements because the unrest has morphed into “a real urban guerrilla war.”

People have been confined to their homes for two days, terrified by “shooting from all sides,” Clément, a nursery director, told the French broadcaster. “We’ve stopped eating, we’ve stopped living, we’ve stopped sleeping,” she added.

“I don’t see how we could get out of the situation without the state of emergency,” she said.

There have been decades of tensions on the archipelago between Indigenous Kanaks seeking independence and descendants of colonizers who want to remain part of France.

After a two-hour security meeting Wednesday with French President Emmanuel Macron and top ministers, Prime Minister Gabriel Attal told parliament in Paris that the state of emergency would aim “to restore order in the shortest time possible.”

Asked if France could deploy the French military to the island, Thevenot said it’s not the army’s job to maintain order but that it is helping with the transport of police reinforcements.

This week’s unrest erupted as the French legislature in Paris debated amending the French constitution to make changes to voter lists in New Caledonia. The National Assembly on Wednesday approved a bill that will, among other changes, allow residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years to cast ballots in provincial elections.

Opponents say the measure will benefit pro-France politicians in New Caledonia and further marginalize indigenous Kanak people. They once suffered from strict segregation policies and widespread discrimination. The vast archipelago of about 270,000 people east of Australia is 10 time zones ahead of Paris.

From Macron down, France’s government made repeated calls for an end to the violence.

The territory’s top French official, High Commissioner Louis Le Franc, warned of the possibility of “many deaths” if calm isn’t restored. A police station was among dozens of places that were attacked, with shots fired, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said. Posting on X, he said a gendarme who had been shot was among the dead.

In Paris, Macron emphasized the need for political dialogue. Rival political parties in New Caledonia also jointly called for calm, saying in a statement: “We have to continue to live together.”

An overnight curfew in New Caledonia was extended to Thursday. Schools and the main airport remained closed, Le Franc said.

“The situation is not serious, it is very serious,” Le Franc said. “We have entered a dangerous spiral, a deadly spiral.”

He said some residents in the capital and neighboring municipalities formed “self-defense groups” to protect their homes and businesses.

New Caledonia became French in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III, Napoleon’s nephew and heir. It became an overseas territory after World War II, with French citizenship granted to all Kanaks in 1957.

A peace deal between rival factions was reached in 1988. A decade later, France promised to grant New Caledonia political power and broad autonomy and hold up to three successive referendums.

The three referendums were organized between 2018 to 2021 and a majority of voters chose to remain part of France instead of backing independence. The pro-independence Kanak people rejected the results of the last referendum in 2021, which they boycotted because it was held at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Barbara Surk reported from Nice.

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