Violence rages in New Caledonia as France rushes emergency reinforcements to its Pacific territory

PARIS — (AP) — Violence raged across New Caledonia for the third consecutive day Thursday, hours after France imposed a state of emergency in the French Pacific territory, boosting security forces' powers to quell unrest in the archipelago that has long sought independence.

French authorities in New Caledonia and the interior ministry in Paris said five people, including two police officers, were killed after protests earlier this week over voting reforms pushed by President Emmanuel Macron's government turned deadly.

At least 60 members of the security forces were injured and 214 people were arrested over clashes with police, arson and looting Thursday, the territory’s top French official, High Commissioner Louis Le Franc, said.

“Everything is being done to restore order and calm that Caledonians deserve,” French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said after a meeting at the Elysee presidential palace in Paris.

He said that in addition to 1,700 security forces troops that have already been deployed to help police, 1,000 more are on the way but the situation “remains very tense, with looting, riots, arson and attacks, which are unbearable and unspeakable.”

Two members of the island’s Indigenous Kanak community were among the five dead, French Interior and Overseas Territories Minister Gerald Darmanin said Thursday as he vowed that France "will regain total control.”

He said 10 people, all allegedly from the pro-independence movement known as The Field Acton Coordination Unit, were under house arrest. In April, the group had backed several protests against French authorities on the island.

Still, Darmanin claimed the movement is a “small group which calls itself pro-independence, but instead commits looting, murder and violence.”

Leaders of a Kanak Workers Union in Paris appealed for calm and said they were deeply saddened by deaths in their faraway homeland.

“We wish to see the French government make a strong political statement rather than send troops,” a union leader Rock Haocas told reporters on Thursday. “Starting a conversation would be a strong political statement."

In New Caledonia, The National Council of Chiefs of the Indigenous Kanak people condemned “all acts of vandalism and gun violence,” but rejected the allegations that the pro-independence movement was involved in the deadly violence.

Grand Chief Hippolyte Sinewami-Htamumu expressed full support for the pro-independence group, which has mobilized more than a hundred thousand people “of all ages and from all backgrounds” in peaceful protests in recent months in the capital, Nouméa, and throughout the island.

“This is not a ‘terrorist group’ or ‘mafia group,’ as certain political leaders want us to believe,” he said in a statement on Thursday.

The state of emergency will be in place for at least 12 days as French military forces were being deployed to protect ports and airports and to free up police troops. The curfew has been extended until Friday morning, said Le Franc, the high commissioner.

The territory’s political parties also appealed for calm on both sides — those who support independence and those who want the island to remain part of France.

The last time France imposed emergency powers on one of its overseas territories was in 1985, also in New Caledonia. The measures enable French and local authorities on the archipelago to tackle unrest, authorizing house detentions for those deemed a threat to public order, allowing for searches, weapons' seizures and restricting movement, with possible jail time for violators.

The Pacific island east of Australia, home to about 270,000 people and 10 time zones ahead of Paris, is known to tourists for its UNESCO World Heritage atolls and reefs. Tensions have simmered for decades between the Indigenous Kanaks seeking independence and colonizers’ descendants who want it to remain part of France.

People of European descent in New Caledonia, which has long served as France's prison colony and now has a French military base, distinguish between descendants of colonizers and descendants of the many prisoners sent to the territory by force.

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 this will benefit pro-France politicians in New Caledonia and further marginalize the Kanaks, who had once suffered from strict segregation policies and widespread discrimination.

Macron said Wednesday that he would convene the Congress, a joint session of lawmakers from both houses of the French parliament, by the end of June to amend the constitution and make the bill law in the absence of a meaningful dialogue and consensus among local representatives.

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 on the island's future.

The referendums were organized between 2018 to 2021 and a majority of voters chose to have New Caledonia remain part of France, instead of backing independence.

The pro-independence Kanak people rejected the results of the last, 2021 referendum, which they had boycotted because it was held at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Surk reported from Nice, France. Associated Press reporter Oleg Cetinic in Paris contributed to this report.