President Macron arrives in New Caledonia, a French territory on the brink of civil war

French President Emmanuel Macron has a lot to handle. The European elections are fast approaching and his party is expected to lose. There are frenetic preparations for the Paris Olympic Games. A manhunt is underway for an inmate whose brazen and deadly escape shocked the country.

The last place many expected Macron to be was on a plane headed to one of France's Pacific territories, where riots have erupted all week. But there he was, arriving in New Caledonia on Thursday with three ministers in tow, on a mission to heal and listen in a territory where many hold him personally responsible for the unrest.

“I come here with determination to work to restore peace, with a lot of respect and humility,” he said upon his arrival.

The riots were sparked by the prospect of a vote last week in the National Assembly in Paris to expand voting rights in the territory. Many among the local indigenous population fear that the law could hinder the long process towards independence.

Macron had planned to meet with local officials and civil society activists, to thank the police and engage in a round of dialogue before quickly getting back on a plane and flying more than 10,000 miles back to mainland France.

The trip, in many ways, is a Macron classic. He feels that any dispute, no matter how heated, can be resolved through personal dialogue with him. But given local distrust of the government, many believe his trip is not only short, but short-sighted.

“He bears responsibility for this problem,” said Jean-François Merle, a New Caledonia expert at the Jean Jaurès Foundation and an advisor to former Prime Minister Michel Rocard during the region's sensitive peace negotiations in the 1980s. “I'm not sure there are political commitments to dialogue – from all sides.”

Last week, riots broke out in New Caledonia, a small archipelago of around 270,000 inhabitants, leading to the worst violence in decades: six dead, many injured and around 400 businesses damaged, many due to arson.

From far away Paris, French authorities have declared a state of emergency in the region and sent hundreds of police officers in an attempt to restore peace. On Wednesday, Macron said from New Caledonia that security forces would remain “for as long as necessary” but that the state of emergency “should not be prolonged.”

“This trip comes too late,” said Martial Foucault, a political science professor who heads the department of French overseas territories at Sciences Po in Paris. “No one expected Macron to go there.”

The discontent dates back to 2021, when Macron insisted on holding the territory's third independence referendum despite pleas from leaders of the indigenous Kanak community to delay the vote due to the coronavirus pandemic. Many communities had been devastated by the virus, and local customs prohibited political activity during mourning.

Eventually Kanak leaders called for a boycott of the vote. They have since refused to accept the results, according to which 97% of voters wanted the territory to remain in France, but only 44% of the population voted. Previous referendums showed much higher voter turnout and resulted in pro-France results of 57% and 53%.

Macron and his government considered the vote final, ending the long-simmering debate over independence. He also highlighted the role of France's foothold in the Indo-Pacific as a bulwark against China's expanding influence.

It is unclear whether independence activists will meet with Macron during his short visit this week. Many refused to meet the French Interior Minister in February; a video conference with him last week was canceled “due to lack of available participants,” according to Agence France-Presse.

New Caledonia was colonized by the French in 1853 as a penal colony, with an explicit policy of turning indigenous peoples into a minority, said Benoît Trépied, an anthropologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research who specializes in New Caledonia.

After tensions and violence between pro-independence and loyalist militants in the 1980s culminated in the taking of deadly hostages, a peace agreement called the Matignon Accords was signed.

That agreement, and the Nouméa Accords that followed, gradually ceded much of the political power to the Kanak community, formally recognized their culture and customs, and established a three-vote referendum on independence.

At the dawn of the new century, the vote on the independence referendum was postponed for another two decades. French authorities agreed to freeze voter rolls so that recent arrivals in New Caledonia, who were thought to be more likely to support the French government, could not influence the vote.

For pro-independence forces, last week's vote in Parliament to expand voting rights threatened a delicate balance of offering people who have lived in New Caledonia for more than 10 years the right to vote in the next provincial election.

The French government claims that the bill represents a much-needed solution to the democratic process. Local Kanak leaders see it as the removal of protection meant to prevent them from becoming an even smaller minority in their own land.

Macron can talk all he wants, Trépied said, but without a commitment to delay the new law and draw up a new referendum, he didn't foresee that any Kanak leader would listen. “The political amnesia of Macron and his political movement is irresponsible,” he said.

The government is not faced with social protest movements typical of France or similar to the riots that erupted across the country last summer, Trépied added: “It is faced with a people who are fighting for decolonization and who will not give up ever and never. “

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