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By Patrick Decloitre, RNZ Pacific correspondent French Pacific desk, and Lydia Lewis, RNZ Pacific journalist

The suspected ringleaders of the unrest in New Caledonia have been placed in home detention and the social network TikTok has been banned as French security forces struggle to restore law and order.

The French territory faced its fourth day of severe rioting and unrest yesterday after protests erupted over proposed constitutional amendments.

Four people have now been confirmed dead, Charles Wea, a spokesperson for international relations for the president’s office, said.

The death toll has been revised today to five people after officials confirmed the death of a second police officer. However, RNZ Pacific understands it was an accidental killing which occurred as troops were preparing to leave barracks.

A newly introduced state of emergency has enabled suspected ringleaders to be placed in home detention, as well as a ban on Tiktok to be put in place.

French High Commissioner Louis Le Franc said Nouméa remained the “hottest spot” with some 3000-4000 rioters still in action on the streets of the capital Nouméa and another 5000 in the Greater Nouméa area.

Wea told RNZ Pacific the demonstrators “were very angry when their friends and families had been killed”.

‘Shops still closed’
“Shops are still closed. Many houses have been burnt. The international airport is closed, only military planes are allowed to land from Paris.”

Reports RNZ Pacific are receiving from the capital paint a dire picture. Shops are running out of food and hospitals are calling for blood donations.

Enforcing the state of emergency in New Caledonia.  Video: [in French] Caledonia TV

“This morning [Thursday] a few shops have been opened so people can buy some food to eat,” Wea said.

RNZ Pacific former news editor Walter Zweifel, who has been covering the French Pacific territory for over three decades, said New Caledonia had not seen unrest like this since the 1980s.

The number of guns circulating in the community was a major problem as people continued to carry firearms despite a government ban, he said.

“There are so many firearms in circulation, attempts to limit the number of weapons have been made over the years unsuccessfully.

“We are talking about roughly 100,000 arms or rifles in circulation in New Caledonia with a population of less than 300,000.”

French armed forces started to arrive in Nouméa yesterday
French armed forces started to arrive in Nouméa yesterday in the wake of the rioting. Image: NC la 1ère screenshot APR

More details about fatalities
One of the four people earlier reported dead was a French gendarme, who was reported to have been shot in the head.

“The other three are all Melanesians,” Le Franc said.

One was a 36-year-old Kanak man, another a 20-year-old man and the third was a 17-year-old girl.

The deaths occurred during a clash with one of the newly formed “civil defence” groups, who were carrying guns, Le Franc said.

“Those who have committed these crimes are assassins. They are individuals who have used firearms.

“Maintaining law and order is a matter for professionals, police and gendarmes.”

Le Franc added: “We will look for them and we will find them anyway, so I’m calling them to surrender right now . .. so that justice can take its course.”

‘Mafia-like, violent organisation’
French Home Affairs and Overseas minister Gérald Darmanin told public TV channel France 2 he had placed 10 leaders of the CCAT (an organisation linked to the pro-independence FLNKS movement and who Darmanin believed to be the main organiser of the riots) under home detention.

“This is a Mafia-like body which I do not amalgamate with political pro-independence parties . . . [CCAT] is a group that claims itself to be pro-independence and commits looting, murders and violence,” he said.

Similar measures would be taken against other presumed leaders over the course of the day [Thursday French time].

“I have numerous elements which show this is a Mafia-like, violent organisation that loots stores and shoots real bullets at [French] gendarmes, sets businesses on fire and attacks even pro-independence institutions,” Darmanin told France 2.

Massive reinforcements were to arrive shortly and the French state would “totally regain control”, he said.

The number of police and gendarmes on the ground would rise from 1700 to 2700 by Friday night.

Darmanin also said he would request that all legitimate political party leaders across the local spectrum be placed under the protection of police or special intervention group members.

Pointing fingers
Earlier on Thursday, speaking in Nouméa, Le Franc targeted the CCAT, saying there was no communication between the French State and CCAT, but that “we are currently trying to locate them”.

“This is a group of hooligans who wish to kill police, gendarmes. This has nothing to do with FLNKS political formations which are perfectly legitimate.

“But this CCAT structure is no longer relevant. Those who are at the helm of this cell are all responsible. They will have to answer to the courts,” he said.

Burnt out cars in New Caledonia during civil unrest.
Burnt out cars in New Caledonia during the civil unrest. Image: Twitter/@ncla1ere

However, CCAT has said it had called for calm.

Wea said the CCAT “did not tell the people to steal or break”.

The problem was that the French government “did not want to listen”, he said.

“The FLNKS has said for months not to go through with this bill.

France ‘not recognising responsibility’
“It is easy to say the CCAT are responsible, but the French government does not want to recognise their responsibility.”

Wea said he was hopeful for a peaceful resolution.

The FLNKS had always said that the next discussion with the French government would need to be around the continued management and organisation of the country for the next five years, he said.

The FLNKS also wanted to talk about the process of decolonisation.

“It is important to note that the [Pacific Islands Forum] and also the Melanesian Spearhead Group have always supported the independence of New Caledonia because independence is in the agenda of the United Nation.”

The Melanesian Spearhead Group and Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Charlot Salwai called on the French government to withdraw or annul the proposed constitutional amendments that sparked the civil unrest.

French President Emmanuel Macron said from Paris, where a meeting of a national defence council was now taking place every day, that he wished to hold a video conference with all of New Caledonia’s political leaders in order to assess the current situation.

Another looted supermarket in Nouméa’s Kenu-In neighbourhood.
A looted supermarket in Nouméa’s Kenu-In neighbourhood. Image: NC la 1ère TV/RNZ

But Wea said the problem was that “the French government don’t want to listen”.

“You cannot stop the Kanak people claiming freedom in their own country.”

He said concerns were mounting that Kanak people would “become a minority in their own country”.

That was why it was so important that the controversial constitutional amendments did not go any further, he said.

Economic impact
In the face of massive damage caused to the local economy, Southern Province President Sonia Backès has pleaded with French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal for a “special reconstruction fund” to be set up for New Caledonia’s businesses.

“The local Chamber of Commerce estimates that initial damage to our economy amounts to some 150 million euros [NZ$267 million],” she wrote.

All commercial flights in and out of Nouméa-La Tontouta International Airport remain cancelled.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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