First evacuation flight arrives in New Caledonia amid growing unrest

On Tuesday, the first flight arrived in New Caledonia to evacuate tourists stuck in the French territory in the South Pacific. The island has experienced a week of deadly riots, sparked by electoral changes imposed by the French government in Paris. 

For days now, chaos has prevailed in New Caledonia, a French territory with special status east of Australia. Protesters paralysed the archipelago with roadblocks and violence last week over French plans to amend voting laws to allow more recent arrivals to vote in provincial elections. Amid the chaos, the capital Noumea’s airport was closed down for commercial flights, leaving thousands of tourists stranded. Australia and New Zealand have now sent their first military planes to New Caledonia to evacuate their nationals. 

Protests erupted after controversial electoral reforms were approved in Paris last week that would change who is allowed to participate in elections. Local leaders fear these new rules will dilute the vote of the indigenous Kanaks, who make up about 40 per cent of the population. They think the measure will benefit pro-France politicians in New Caledonia and further marginalise Kanaks who once suffered from strict segregation policies and widespread discrimination.

At least six people have been killed and hundreds more have been injured during the protests. About 270 suspected rioters have been arrested and a curfew is in effect. France has sent in over a thousand security personnel, with hundreds more due to arrive Tuesday, to try to quell the unrest and restore control. Kanak activists, however, vowed they would not give up. 

Whether the flights organised by Australia and New Zealand would also evacuate other stranded foreigners remains unclear for now. But there is already talk of additional evacuation flights in the coming days.


Kanak flag waves next to a burning vehicle at an independentist roadblock at La Tamoa, in the commune of Paita, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia © Delphine Mayeur / AFP


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