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France deploys troops, bans TikTok, to quell New Caledonia unrest

Pro-independence, largely indigenous protests against a French plan to impose new voting rules on its Pacific archipelago have spiralled into the deadliest violence since the 1980s.

Palm-lined boulevards in the capital Noumea, that are usually thronged with tourists, were littered with debris and patrolled by armoured vehicles, while some locals piled up household objects to make roadblocks.

A gendarme was killed on Thursday, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told AFP, bringing to two the number of police officers who have died. 

A police source told AFP he was killed by friendly fire.

Darmanin accused Azerbaijan, which resents Paris’ support for its arch-rival Armenia, of “interference” in the unrest, which Baku swiftly rejected as “baseless”.

New Caledonia separatists were among pro-independence groups from French overseas territories invited to Baku last year.

The alliance on Tuesday condemned “arrests of Kanaks and violence by the French authorities against civilians in New Caledonia”.

In Noumea, there was a suspected arson attack on the building housing a consultative body for the indigenous Kanak people, its staff said, although the extent of the damage was not immediately clear.

Security forces placed five suspected ringleaders under house arrest, according to the high commission, which represents the French state in New Caledonia.

More than 200 “rioters” have been arrested, the high commission said, numbering participants at up to 5,000 in greater Noumea.

It added that “people have been ambushing law enforcement officers” with “sustained fire from hunting rifles”.

Hundreds of people, including 64 police, have been wounded, officials said, among the territory’s population of around 270,000.

Nearly 1,800 law enforcement officers have been mobilised and a further 500 will reinforce them, a government spokeswoman said.

– ‘People are on edge’ –

Authorities reported a third night of “clashes”, although AFP correspondents in Noumea said it appeared calmer than previous nights.

Onlookers wandered around burnt-out shops, looted shelves and discarded packaging.

“We just grabbed what there was in the shops to eat. Soon there will be no more shops,” said one woman in a Noumea suburb on condition of anonymity.

“We need milk for the children. I don’t see it as looting,” she told AFP.

The high commission said France was establishing an “air bridge” to bring in troops, police reinforcements and essential supplies for the population.

Nicole George, an Australian professor visiting Noumea, told AFP she had seen residents armed with improvised weapons manning barricades.

“It is a very tense situation. People are on edge. They are frightened. They are tired,” she said.

French President Emmanuel Macron offered to hold talks on Thursday with New Caledonian lawmakers and called for a resumption of political dialogue.

Sonia Backes, the leader of New Caledonia’s southern province which includes Noumea, has written to Prime Minister Gabriel Attal asking for a 150-million-euro ($163-million) “one-off reconstruction fund” to repair the damage.

– TikTok ban –

Attal told a ministerial crisis meeting that troops had been deployed to secure ports and the international airport in New Caledonia, which has been closed to commercial flights.

TikTok had been banned because it was being used by protesters, he said. 

New Caledonia, which lies between Australia and Fiji 17,000 kilometres (10,600 miles) from Paris, is one of several territories around the globe that remain under French control in the post-colonial era. 

Colonised by France from the second half of the 19th century, it has special status, unlike the country’s other overseas territories.

While it has on three occasions rejected independence in referendums, independence retains strong support among the Kanak people, whose ancestors have lived on the islands for thousands of years.

French lawmakers on Tuesday pushed forward plans to allow outsiders who moved to New Caledonia at least 10 years ago to cast ballots in the territory’s elections.

Pro-independence forces say that would dilute the vote of Kanaks, who make up about 40 percent of the population.

The reform must still be approved by a joint sitting of both houses of the French parliament.  

Macron has said French lawmakers will vote to adopt the constitutional change by the end of June unless New Caledonia’s opposing sides can strike a new deal.

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