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POLITICS

France mounts ‘major operation’ to open route to New Caledonia’s restive capital

French forces launched a "major operation" on Sunday to regain control of a key road linking New Caledonia's capital Noumea to the main international airport, after a sixth night of violent unrest.

People wait in line to buy provisions from a supermarket along a street blocked by debris and burnt out items following overnight unrest in Noumea in France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia
People wait in line to buy provisions from a supermarket along a street blocked by debris and burnt out items following overnight unrest in Noumea in France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia, on May 18, 2024. Hundreds of French security personnel tried to restore order in New Caledonia on May 18, after a fifth night of riots, looting and unrest. (Photo by Delphine Mayeur / AFP)

Officials said more than 600 heavily armed gendarmes were deployed to secure Route Territoriale 1, the main north-south artery connecting the restive capital with the rest of the island and the outside world.

The Pacific archipelago has been convulsed by violent unrest since Monday. Local authorities say six people have been killed — including two gendarmes — and hundreds have been injured.

The violence has been fuelled by economic malaise, ethnic tensions and long-standing opposition to French rule. Around 230 people have been detained, authorities said.

A nighttime curfew, state of emergency, ban on TikTok and arrival of hundreds of troops from mainland France failed to prevent more unrest overnight Saturday to Sunday.

Unidentified groups set two fires and raided a petrol station, according to the office of New Caledonia’s high commissioner.

But authorities insisted the situation is improving. “The night has been calmer,” the commissioner’s office said.

Local media reported a public library was among the buildings burned.

The mayor’s office told AFP there was “no way of confirming for the moment” as the “neighbourhood remains inaccessible”.

Stranded tourists

For almost a week, protesters have set vehicles, shops, industrial sites and public buildings alight, while pro-independence forces have controlled access to Tontouta International Airport.

A local business group estimated the damage, concentrated around Noumea, at more than 200 million euros ($200 million).

AFP reporters were able to reach the airport from Noumea on Sunday, but were stopped repeatedly by groups blocking access at several locations.

Flights to and from New Caledonia’s main island have been cancelled since the unrest began, stranding an estimated 3,200 travellers and cutting off a key trade route.

A street blocked by debris and burnt out items is seen following overnight unrest in the Magenta district of Noumea,

A street blocked by debris and burnt out items is seen following overnight unrest in the Magenta district of Noumea, France’s Pacific territory of New Caledonia, on May 18, 2024. (Photo by Delphine Mayeur / AFP)

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said “a major operation of more than 600 gendarmes” was being launched “aimed at completely regaining control of the 60 kilometre main road” and allowing the airport to reopen.

The single-lane Territorial Route 1 weaves through the dense bush-covered hills and mountains that reminded explorer James Cook of Scotland and gave the islands their current name.

READ MORE: Explained: What’s behind the violence on French island of New Caledonia?

Australia and New Zealand are among the nations waiting for Paris’ all clear to send planes to evacuate trapped tourists.

In Wellington, Foreign Minister Winston Peters said New Zealand Defence Forces had “completed preparations” for flights to “bring home New Zealanders in New Caledonia while commercial services are not operating.”

Australian tourist Maxwell Winchester and his wife Tiffany were due to leave Noumea on Tuesday.

Instead, he told AFP, they have been barricaded inside a resort halfway between the city and the airport, with dwindling supplies.

“They basically burned up every exit on the motorway and all the roads that you could use to get anywhere. So wherever you are, you’re blockaded,” he said.

“We’re just about to run out of food,” he said, adding that with supermarkets inaccessible or burned “the resort staff are basically using black market sources to get something.”

“Every night we had to sleep with one eye open, every noise we were worried that they were coming in to loot us,” he said.

“This morning at an exit near here, the gendarmerie was coming through and there was a shootout.”

‘Spiral of violence’

New Caledonia has been a French territory since the mid-1800s.

Almost two centuries on, its politics remain dominated by debate about whether the islands should be part of France, autonomous or independent — with opinions split roughly along ethnic lines.

Indigenous Kanaks make up about 39 percent of the islands’ 270,000 people, but tend to be poorer and have fewer years of schooling than European Caledonians.

France prohibits the state from collecting statistics based on ethnicity, but economists like Catherine Ris estimate about five percent of Kanaks have a higher education diploma versus 28 percent of non-Kanaks.

The latest cycle of violence was sparked by plans in Paris to impose new voting rules that could give tens of thousands of non-Indigenous residents voting rights.

Pro-independence groups say that would dilute the Kanak vote. The islands are also home to sizable Vietnamese and Polynesian communities.

French officials have accused a separatist group known as CCAT of being behind the violence and have placed at least 10 of its activists under house arrest.

READ ALSO: Why is France accusing Azerbaijan of stirring tensions in New Caledonia?

CCAT on Friday called for “a time of calm to break the spiral of violence.”

Annie, an 81-year-old Noumea resident, said the week’s violence had been worse than the tumultuous 1980s, a time of political killings and hostage-taking referred to as “The Events”.

“At the time, there weren’t as many weapons,” she said.

Around 1,000 security forces began reinforcing the 1,700 officers already on the ground from Thursday.

Efforts to negotiate peace have so far stumbled, although French President Emmanuel Macron had begun contacting pro- and anti-independence officials individually on Friday, his office said.

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POLITICS

GAME: Build your own coalition in France’s parliament

As France's political deadlock continues, the French newspaper Le Monde has developed a tool that allows people to attempt to build their own coalition majority in the Assemblée Nationale.

GAME: Build your own coalition in France's parliament

More than a week after France’s snap elections the parliament is still deadlocked and politicians seem more interested in fighting each other than building alliances.

Therefore France’s newspaper of record Le Monde has suggested that its readers might like to have go instead, creating a ‘build your own coalition’ game.

Following the snap parliamentary elections on July 7th, the left-wing coalition, Nouveau Front Populaire (NFP) got the largest number of seats (193) but fell far short of an absolute majority (289 seats out of 577). They were followed by the centrist bloc with 164 seats and the far-right Rassemblement National and allies in third place with 143. 

Moving forward, there are a few options for how parliament could be governed, with a broad coalition being one of them. However, this possibility remains complicated, as the three major blocs (the left, the centre and the far-right) seem disinterested in working with one another.

READ MORE: Does France have a government right now?

Le Monde has developed a tool that allows users to attempt to build their own coalition, piecing together the individual parties and groups in order to try to create an absolute majority.

Maybe one of their readers will find the solution that is evading the politicians. 

You can test it out for yourself HERE.

When playing, you will be given the option to click on several parties, watching them populate the chamber until you reach (or fail to reach) an absolute majority.  

Once you have reached a majority, you will see a green tick and the message ‘majorité atteinte‘ – you can then begin governing France (we think that’s how it works anyway).

Example of a successful coalition in the French parliament.

Key

In order to play, you will need to know each of the different groups and their political positions

The left

On the left of the political spectrum we have the various members of the Nouveau Front Populaire (NFP), coloured purple in the game. 

NFP – PC: The communist party. Greatly diminished from its heyday in the 1950s and 60s, the party remains a force at a local level, but only won 9 seats in the Assemblée. Led by Fabien Roussel.

NFP – LFI: The largest party within the group is La France Insoumise, with 74 seats. Translating as ‘France unbowed’ this is the party furthest to the left in the NFP. Founded by Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

NFP – EELV: The green party, part of NFP. Previously Europe Ecologie Les Verts, sometimes still referred to as EELV or Les Verts. They hold 28 seats.

NFP – Géneration.s: Formed in 2017, a splinter party from the original Parti Socialiste. They hold 5 seats, and are part of NFP.

NFP – PS: The centre-left party. One of two that dominated French politics in the post-war period, producing presidents François Mitterand and François Hollande, these days it is much reduced. Current leader – Olivier Faure. They hold 59 seats.

NFP – Rég: MPs representing primarily individual French regions and identities, left-leaning. They have two seats.

NFP – Divers gauche: Other left-wing MPs aligned with NFP. 13 seats, including people like Danielle Simonnet and Alexis Corbière who were previously members of the LFI group.

The rest of the left

Although almost all of the left-wing MPs are part of the Nouveau Front Populaire group (at least for now), but there are some exceptions.

Divers gauche: Non-affiliated left-wing MPs, coloured red in the game;

The centre

Centrist candidates are mostly part of the Ensemble group, which includes Emmanuel Macron’s party and which is coloured yellow in the game.

Ensemble Modem: The original centrist party headed by François Bayrou, now part of the Ensemble alliance with Macron’s party. They hold 33 seats.

Ensemble Horizons: The new centrists founded by Macron’s former prime minister Edouard Philippe, who is strongly tipped to be the centrist candidate in the 2027 presidential elections when Macron himself cannot stand again. Also part of the Ensemble alliance, for now. They hold 25 seats.

Ensemble Renaissance: Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party, spearheading the Ensemble coalition. They were previously named La république en marche (LREM) and before that En Marche. For the sake of convenience, they’re often referred to simply as Macronistes. They hold 102 seats.

Ensemble UDI: Members of the centre-right group that chose to join with the Macronists. Two seats.

Ensemble Divers: Other centrist MPs in the Ensemble group. Six seats.

The rest of the centre

UDI et divers centre: Members of the centre-right group founded in 2012, as well as non-affiliated centrists. Six seats.

The right

The politicians on the right of the political spectrum have not, so far, managed to create any kind of unified alliance so remain within individual parties.

Divers droite: Non-affiliated right-wing MPs. 14 seats.

LR: Les Républicains are the second of the two parties that dominated post war politics (party of Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac and political heirs of Charles de Gaulle) this party too is greatly diminished. Originally centre right, it has moved sharply to the right in recent years under leader Eric Ciotti. Ciotti created an electoral alliance with the far-right Rassemblement National which horrified many party members and resulted in a split. The LR designation denotes the part of the party which is not affiliated with far-right Rassemblement National. They hold 46 seats.

LR-RN: The group that is part of the Ciotti/RN alliance is known as Les Républicains à droite or Les amis de Ciotti. 17 seats.

RN: The far-right Rassemblement National. Founded in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen under the name Front National, the party changed its name to Rassemblement National (national rally) after Le Pen’s daughter Marine took over. She remains the party’s presidential candidate but the party leader – and RN prime minister if the party wins a majority – is Jordan Bardella. They were expected to win a majority of seats, but instead came in third place with 126.

READ MORE: Ask the experts: How far-right is France’s Rassemblement National?

Régionalistes, autres: Other non-affiliated MPs and members of regionalist parties.

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