Rush to get stranded Australians home from New Caledonia after riot

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The Australian government’s efforts to rescue the remaining Australians stranded in New Caledonia, as riots continue across French territory, have been a difficult tightrope to walk alongside diplomatic tensions between China and the West.

Usually, the idyllic Pacific island is the perfect holiday spot for Australians, but hundreds of people have been involved in violent riots for almost two weeks.

At least six people have died since the fighting broke out, and escalating tensions have forced the French government to close Noumea international airport.

Australians have been told to stay indoors as barricades were placed around the capital, with many having limited access to food and medicine as looters and vandals took control of the city.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade successfully evacuated 108 Australians on Tuesday, while a third flight organized by France carrying 89 stranded Australians and dozens of other nations’ citizens landed in Brisbane on Wednesday.

Efforts to repatriate remaining Australians who wanted to return home were suspended on Thursday after French President Emmanuel Macron landed in Noumea.

More Australians were expected to leave Noumea as the government continued to work to organize additional flights to assist stranded citizens.

Around 300 Australians initially registered their interest in leaving New Caledonia with DFAT.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong said passengers were being prioritized based on need.

Conflicting tensions in the Pacific

Nicholas Ferns, a history researcher at Monash University, told NewsWire that the escalation of tensions in New Caledonia is a multi-faceted event resulting from the French National Assembly’s decision to grant voting rights to people living on the island of the Pacific for more than a decade.

Dr Ferns said Australia’s relationship with France was playing a huge role in how the Government responds to the riots and in its efforts to rescue stranded Australians.

“It comes at a time when Australia is looking to re-establish relations with France following the French submarine deal and AUKUS,” he said. 

“One of the factors is that there is a strategic element because New Caledonia is the fourth largest supplier of nickel, which is used to make batteries for electric vehicles.

“France is a much more powerful country.

“Australia must be respectful while it can dictate to other Pacific Island countries that are independent and sovereign.”

Ferns said despite Australia being the geographic leader in terms of its position in the Pacific, the government is also cautious in its response to the way France is handling the ongoing crisis in Noumea due to China’s interest in the region .

“It’s a kind of recognition of the Western powers in the region, there’s this big fear that China is starting to get involved in the area,” he said.

“But local (Pacific Islander) leaders are less worried in China.

“They’re happy to work with China, they’re not worried about the geopolitics of the whole thing.”

What triggered the riots

In 1998, France signed the Noumea Agreement, which granted increased political power to New Caledonia and its indigenous population, the Kanak.

Dr Ferns said those who favor independence from France have expressed disappointment with the system for decades.

“Although the riots were triggered by the decision to change voting laws, perceived as strengthening anti-independence interests, they reflect the longer history of tensions associated with French colonialism in the Pacific,” he said.

“Economic inequality is a major problem in New Caledonia and divisions between the indigenous Kanak population and the European population have been simmering for decades.”

But Dr Ferns said Paris’ latest decision had angered the independence movement in the Pacific island nation.

“There’s a bit of a generation gap,” he said.

“Part of what explains the extreme reaction is that there is a generation that is now born after an agreement made in the late 1990s, which this (latest) decision has annulled.

“These are people who don’t benefit from French colonialism and the latest French reform, which is the change in voting rules, is a kind of spark.”

Australia’s continued efforts to rescue stranded citizens

The French government must give permission to DFAT to rescue the remaining Australians.

Ms Wong has worked with the French Government and DFAT to ensure remaining Australians hoping to return home can do so safely.

“The Australian government is ready to help more tourists leave New Caledonia and has planes ready to fly,” Ms Wong said on Thursday.

“We have not been given permission for further flights. We know this is frustrating for the Australians who remain.

“We are working to secure flights (Friday).

“We are also working with local authorities on travel arrangements for Australians in the outer islands.

“DFAT will continue to directly update registered Australians.”

Speaking in Noumea, Macron said he intended to delay the electoral reforms that sparked the riots until peace returned to New Caledonia.

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