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‘Balaclavas and big sticks’: New Caledonia tourists trapped by riots

Anger in New Caledonia over French plans to impose new voting rules spiralled into five days of the deadliest violence in four decades
Anger in New Caledonia over French plans to impose new voting rules spiralled into five days of the deadliest violence in four decades - Copyright AFP Delphine Mayeur
Anger in New Caledonia over French plans to impose new voting rules spiralled into five days of the deadliest violence in four decades - Copyright AFP Delphine Mayeur
Laura CHUNG, Joseph OLBRYCHT PALMER

Lured by the promise of a Pacific paradise, hundreds of visitors to France’s island territory of New Caledonia have found themselves trapped in a land teeming with troops trying to put down riots.

In its online brochure, the territory’s tourism office asks people to come and “unravel the mysteries” of islands that boast the world’s largest lagoon and are “picture-perfect with their paradise beaches”.

Tourism, a critical industry in the French-controlled archipelago, took a hit during the Covid-19 pandemic but finally showed signs of recovery last year with 125,900 people visiting, the island government says.

Since Monday, however, many visitors’ plans have gone awry.

Anger that night over French plans to impose new voting rules spiralled into five days of the deadliest violence in four decades, with arson attacks, looting, and shootings leaving five dead and hundreds wounded.

The army-controlled La Tontouta International Airport has been closed to commercial flights, as extra French troops and armed police are flown in.

Commercial flights to New Caledonia are not expected to restart before May 21.

Long queues have formed outside shops for food and supplies.

Australian painting business owner Nicholas Agustin, 36, landed in the capital Noumea with his girlfriend last week hoping to enjoy sightseeing and island exploring.

On arrival, he saw a few peaceful protesters outside the airport.

“Over the next few days there were a lot of people on the streets waving flags and whatnot,” Agustin told AFP.

“But then we got back from a day trip to an island and got told there would be lockdowns,” he said.

“We saw men on the streets with balaclavas and big sticks. There was smoke in the city.”

– ‘Frightening’ –

Agustin said they were running out of food.

“If the riots continue, I don’t know what to expect,” he said, adding that he had received no assistance so far from the Australian government.

Groups of Indigenous Kanaks have set up roadblocks around the main island, waving the territory’s flag, burning tyres and blocking or slowing traffic.

Other mostly non-Indigenous residents, some armed, piled up garden chairs, crates and other belongings in neighbourhood barricades.

Sophie Parkinson travelled to Noumea for work, expecting her son and husband to join her afterwards for a holiday.

“They never came and I am now blocked here without knowing when I will be able to go home,” she said. 

“The situation is frightening.”

She is staying with her father, who lives on the island, and has found herself helping neighbours to defend their street.

“We are risking our lives to go out just the two of us very quickly during the day to get a few groceries.”

Australian professor Nicole George was also in New Caledonia on a work trip.

Near her hotel, she could see people with baseball bats by self-built barricades.

“It is a very tense situation,” George said. “People are on edge, they are frightened, they are tired.”

Shop shelves are bare, with some bakeries telling locals to reserve bread a day ahead, she said.

Tourists and other visitors have peppered social media with requests for help.

Diplomats from neighbouring Australia — which sends a steady stream of tourists to the islands — faced growing anger on social media from trapped travellers.

Annelise Young, Australia’s consul general in Noumea, told travellers it was a “distressing time” and urged them to register via the foreign ministry’s crisis portal.

But with airlines still unsure when they can fly, they may face a long and anguished wait.

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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