Pro-independence leader calls on protesters in New Caledonia to 'maintain resistance' against France

NICE, France (AP) — The leader of a pro-independence party in New Caledonia on Saturday called on supporters to “remain mobilized” across the French Pacific archipelago and “maintain resistance” against the Paris government's efforts to impose electoral reforms that the Indigenous Kanak people fear would further marginalize them.

Christian Tein, the leader of the pro-independence party known as The Field Action Coordination Unit, addressed supporters and protesters in a video message. It was posted on social media two days after he and other pro-independence leaders met with French President Emmanuel Macron during his visit to the territory following unrest that left seven dead and a trail of destruction.

Macron repeatedly pushed for the removal of protesters’ barricades with leaders on both sides of New Caledonia’s bitter divide — Indigenous Kanaks, who want independence, and the pro-Paris leaders, who do not.

The French president told them that the state of emergency imposed by Paris for at least 12 days on May 15 to boost police powers could only be lifted if local leaders call for a clearing away of barricades that demonstrators and people trying to protect their neighborhoods erected in the capital, Noumea, and beyond.

In the video message, Tein called on protesters to “slightly loosen the grip” on their barricades in Noumea, its suburbs and along the archipelago's main roads in order to transport fuel, food, medicine and facilitate access to health care for the inhabitants of the islands in the North and South.

But Tein insisted that the barricades would remain in place until French authorities lift house arrest warrants for several of his party members, and Macron's government scraps the electoral reform that Kanaks fear will dilute their influence by allowing some more recent arrivals in the archipelago to vote in local elections.

“We remain mobilized (and) maintain all (forms) of resistance," Tein said and urged supporters to remain steadfast and refrain from violence. “There has been too much suffering, there’s too much at stake and we must see (this) through (and) achieve our goals in a coordinated, structured and organized way.” He added: “Our main objective is for our country to obtain full sovereignty.”

Barricades made up of charred vehicles and other debris have turned parts of Noumea into no-go zones and made traveling around perilous, including for the sick requiring medical treatment and for families fretting about food and water after shops were pillaged and torched.

Police in the northern part of the New Caledonian capital have dismantled several roadblocks in the past several days, but the protesters quickly regrouped and rebuilt them. Tensions remain high throughout the archipelago, local officials said Saturday, despite state of emergency measures that include a 12-hour daily curfew, a ban on public gatherings, the transport of weapons and the sale of alcohol, and a block on TikTok.

In the past seven months, Tein's Field Action Coordination Unit has organized major, peaceful marches in New Caledonia against the Paris-backed voting reform. The unrest began early last week after a demonstration against the legislation under discussion in the French parliament turned violent.

In a separate statement, The Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front, a pro-independence movement, called on Macron to withdraw the electoral reform bill if France wants to “end the crisis.”

Both French houses of parliament in Paris have already approved the overhaul. The next step was to have been a special Congress of both houses meeting in Versailles to implement it by amending the French Constitution. That had been expected by the end of June.

Speaking after meeting leaders in New Caledonia, Macron said that he won’t force through the contested voting reform that sparked the territory’s worst unrest in decades.

Macron called on local leaders to come up with an alternate agreement for the archipelago’s future and laid out a road map that he said could lead to another referendum for the territory.

Three earlier referendums were organized between 2018 and 2021 by French authorities as part of the 1988 peace deal. They produced “no” votes against independence although the independence supporters boycotted the last vote in December 2021.

Macron said another one could be on a new political deal for the archipelago that he hopes local leaders will agree on in coming weeks and months after protesters’ barricades are dismantled, allowing for a state of emergency to be lifted and for peace to return.

New Caledonia became French in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III, Napoleon’s nephew and heir. It became an overseas territory after World War II, with French citizenship granted to all Kanaks in 1957.