French reinforcements sent to New Caledonia

Members of The Marseille Naval Fire Battalion board have been sent to help restore calm in New...
Members of The Marseille Naval Fire Battalion board have been sent to help restore calm in New Caledonia. Photo: Reuters
French police reinforcements have started arriving in New Caledonia as part of a massive operation to regain control of the capital Nouméa, the top French official in the Pacific island territory says. 

The number of police and gendarmes on the island will rise to 2700 from 1700 by Friday evening after unrest since Monday. 

Rioting has erupted over a new bill, adopted by lawmakers in Paris on Tuesday, that allows French residents who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years vote in provincial elections.

Some local leaders fear the move will dilute the indigenous Kanak vote.

Three young Kanak have died in the riots, a 22-year-old police official died of a gunshot wound and there have been hundreds of arrests since Monday. 

People angered by  the electoral reform have set fire to businesses, torched cars, looted shops and set up road barricades, cutting off access to medicine and food, authorities said.

Thursday night was relatively calm, France's High Commissioner Louis Le Franc told reporters in a televised news  conference. However, there were still points of confrontation and concern in Nouméa, he said.

Operations to supply food and medicine to the public would begin with teams, including specialists in mine clearing, removing road barricades that have been booby trapped by activists, he said.

"Reinforcements will arrive massively, immediately (and will be) deployed to control the areas which have escaped our control in recent days... to reconquer all the areas of the urban area which we have lost.

"Our calls for calm, peace and reconciliation are beginning to be heard... It is important that those who are at the origin of the clashes, of the blockages, hear this," Le Franc said.

The New Caledonia government said in a statement on Friday that the island had stocks of food for two months and the problem was distribution.

France has declared a state of emergency on the island, put at least 10 people under house arrest and banned the social media platform TikTok

France's Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on Thursday police had arrested the person responsible for shooting two Kanaks; Le Franc said one perpetrator had surrendered and investigations were continuing into other deaths. 

Electoral reform is the latest flashpoint in a decades-long tussle over France's role in the mineral-producing southwest Pacific island some 1500km east of Australia.

The Pacific Conference of Churches on Friday joined regional inter-governmental groups in calling for France to withdraw the constitutional bill, saying the United Nations should lead a dialogue mission to New Caledonia.

In a statement, the churches said there had been a breakdown in dialogue between the French government and Kanak people.

Pacific Elders Voice, a group of former Pacific leaders, said on Friday decisions were being made in Paris without meaningful consultation and France should listen to "indigenous Kanak voices and the Pacific-wide support for self-determination".

- Reuters