NOUMEA, May 16 — France ordered troops to guard ports and the international airport in its Pacific territory of New Caledonia as a state of emergency starting today after two nights of riots left four dead and hundreds wounded.

Turmoil erupted after France’s National Assembly backed disputed changes to voting rolls that Indigenous Kanak leaders say will dilute their vote.

President Emmanuel Macron offered to hold talks Thursday with New Caledonian lawmakers, while also approving the use of security forces and a night-time curfew to halt the worst violence seen in four decades.

Shops have been looted and public buildings torched during night-time violence. Four people, including a gendarme, have been killed, officials said. Hundreds of people have been injured, they added.


New Caledonia, which lies between Australia and Fiji, is one of several territories around the globe that remain part of France in the post-colonial era. Colonised by France from the second half of the nineteen 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.

Macron called for a resumption of political dialogue. But the government approved a state of emergency from Thursday morning, government spokeswoman Prisca Thevenot said.


Prime Minister Gabriel Attal told a crisis ministerial meeting that troops had been deployed to secure ports and the international airport and the government representative in New Caledonia has “banned TikTok”.

Attal said the social media platform had been used by rioters.

New Caledonia’s airport was already closed to international flights. Attal said the situation in New Caledonia was now “grave” but that the government’s priority was to “restore calm” so that a dialogue could be established.

Under the state of emergency, authorities will be able to enforce travel bans, house arrests and searches, spokeswoman Thevenot added.

Five radical independence activists, accused of organising violence, were immediately put under house arrest, authorities said.

About 70 people were detained in the past 24 hours, the French government office in Noumea said Thursday. The office head, Louis Le Franc, said about 200 “rioters” have been detained in all this week and described the situation as “insurrectional”.

Along with a night curfew, there are bans on gatherings, the carrying of weapons and the sale of alcohol.

Le Franc said extra troops and security forces would be flown to New Caledonia and that 64 police and security forces had been injured in the troubles so far.

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

Macron cancelled a planned trip to the French provinces to chair a new emergency meeting on Thursday.

Arson and pillaging

Shops have been looted and public buildings torched during night-time violence. — AFP pic
Shops have been looted and public buildings torched during night-time violence. — AFP pic

In Noumea and the commune of Paita there were reports of gun battles between civil defence groups and protesters.

Streets in the capital were pocked with the shells of burned-out cars and buildings, including a sports store and a large concrete climbing wall.

“Numerous arsons and pillaging of shops, infrastructure and public buildings — including primary and secondary schools — were carried out,” said the government in the territory.

Security forces had regained control of Noumea’s prison, which holds about 50 inmates, after an uprising and escape bid by prisoners, it said in a statement.

As people took to the streets, France’s National Assembly, 17,000 kilometres away, voted to allow people who have lived in New Caledonia for 10 years to cast ballots. The reform must still be approved by a joint sitting of both houses of the French parliament.

Pro-independence forces say that would dilute the vote of Kanaks, the Indigenous group that makes up about 41 per cent of the population.

But those favouring the reform argue voter lists have not been updated since 1998 — depriving island residents who arrived afterwards of being able to participate in provincial polls.

Macron has said French lawmakers would vote to definitively adopt the constitutional change by the end of June unless New Caledonia’s opposing sides agree on a new text that “takes into account the progress made and everyone’s aspirations”.

Pro- and anti-independence parties issued a joint statement calling for “calm and reason” to return to the archipelago, adding that “we are destined to keep living together”. — AFP