Berliner Tageblatt - Schools, cars burn in New Caledonia ahead of Macron visit

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Schools, cars burn in New Caledonia ahead of Macron visit
Schools, cars burn in New Caledonia ahead of Macron visit / Photo: © AFP

Schools, cars burn in New Caledonia ahead of Macron visit

Arsonists torched schools and hundreds of cars overnight in New Caledonia, officials said Wednesday, as President Emmanuel Macron embarked on a surprise visit aiming to end nine days of deadly riots on the French Pacific archipelago.

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Macron left Paris on Tuesday on a flight to the troubled territory, a popular holiday destination where roads are now littered with charred vehicles, and scores of shops, schools and other buildings are in cinders.

Clashes have left six people dead and hundreds injured since unrest erupted May 13 on the Pacific islands, home to 270,000 people.

French authorities said the violence had eased since 1,050 troops, tactical police and national security reinforcements from Paris were deployed, including to "highly sensitive" areas.

Nevertheless, two primary schools and 300 cars in a dealership were torched in the territory's capital Noumea during the night, the mayor's office told AFP.

The deadliest unrest in four decades has been blamed on French plans to give voting rights to thousands of non-indigenous residents, which Indigenous Kanaks say will dilute their votes.

Police have arrested more than 280 "rioters" since the troubles began, the French authorities said.

- Trapped tourists flee -

Tourists trapped in the territory have begun to flee.

Australia and New Zealand sent an initial batch of military planes to Noumea's small domestic Magenta airport on Tuesday, repatriating "about 100 people", according to French authorities on the island.

"When we landed, it was just like 'Oh, thank God we're here!'" said Mary Hatten, who had spent a week holed up in a Noumea hotel, after touching down in Brisbane.

Further flights will be organised until the main La Tontouta International Airport reopens to commercial flights, French officials said.

The airport operator says commercial flights should resume on Saturday morning.

Macron aims to "listen to, talk and hold discussions with New Caledonian elected officials" in an attempt to restore order, an official close to the president told AFP in Paris.

He wants to "give answers to the many legitimate questions Caledonians are asking, both on the reconstruction side and the political side", the official said.

One Kanak manning an unofficial roadblock north of the capital Noumea said Macron needed to understand Indigenous opposition to the vote reform.

"I don't know why our fate is being discussed by people who don't even live here," said the 52-year-old, who gave only his first name Mike.

"We are the people of the country, not you or the others. No, it's us," he told AFP.

The voice of local Kanaks "is not being listened to, not being heard", he said.

- Barricades -

French security forces have removed more than 90 roadblocks, authorities said.

But Kanak separatists, some masked and wielding homemade catapults, are still manning makeshift roadblocks including on the main route to the international airport, AFP correspondents said.

Armed locals, of French and other origins, have set up their own neighbourhood barricades.

Local prosecutors say around 400 shops and businesses have been damaged.

Kanaks make up about 40 percent of the population.

Many of them oppose the plan to extend voting rights to those who have lived in the territory for at least 10 years.

But anti-independence representatives want it pushed through.

Withdrawing "would prove the wreckers, the looters and the rioters right," said Nicolas Metzdorf, a New Caledonia MP for Macron's Renaissance party.

New Caledonia has been a French territory since the mid-1800s.

But almost two centuries on, opinion is split roughly along ethnic lines over whether the islands should be part of France, autonomous or independent.