SVE NEWS & FRANCE24.COM Sharing Series — French forces launch ‘major operation’ to open route to New Caledonia’s restive capital

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

Gendarmerie armoured vehicles are seen near a police station in Noumea, France’s Pacific territory of New Caledonia, on May 18, 2024. © Delphine Mayeur, AFP

Officials said more than 600 heavily armed gendarmes were dispatched to secure Route Territoriale 1, the main artery connecting the restive capital with air links to the outside world.

Furthermore, plans for the Olympic torch relay to pass through the French territory were cancelled on Saturday.

The flame had been scheduled to arrive on June 11 but French Sports Minister Amélie Oudea-Castera said that “priority must be given to a return to calm” in the territory.

“I think that everyone understands, given the context, that the priority really is to consolidate the return to public order, and then to appeasement.

“Priority to the safety of residents, priority to a return to calm, and priority to the political improvement of the situation.”

Six people have been killed and hundreds injured since rioting began on Monday, according to local authorities.

The violence has been fuelled by economic malaise, ethnic tensions and long-standing opposition to French rule on the Pacific archipelago.

What to know about New Caledonia
What to know about New Caledonia © france24

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”.

Trapped tourists

For almost a week, protesters have set vehicles, shops, industrial sites and public buildings alight, while pro-independence forces have blocked 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 attempted to reach the airport on Sunday but were stopped 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 the trade route.

French Interior Minister Gérald 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 links the airport and weaves through dense, bush-covered hills and mountains that reminded British explorer James Cook of Scotland and gave the islands their current name.

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

In Wellington, Foreign Minister Winston Peters said on Sunday that the 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 we’re coming through and there was a shootout.”

‘Spiral of violence’

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

Ten key dates


French Rear Admiral Auguste Febvrier-Despointes signs the deed of possession of New Caledonia on behalf of Napoleon III. The stated aim is to “secure for France a position in the Pacific required by the interests of the military and commercial navy”, and to establish a penal colony there from the 1860s.


French troops mount a deadly response to a major Kanak revolt against land dispossession. In all, 200 Europeans and at least 600 insurgents were killed, some tribes were wiped off the map and 1,500 Kanaks were forced into exile.


The archipelago becomes an overseas territory of France. The Kanak people receive French citizenship and the right to vote, to be granted gradually.


The Kanak Socialist National Libération Front (FLNKS) is founded. The pro-independence party decides to create a provisional government for a future Kanaky (New Caledonia in the Kanak languages).


A referendum on independence for New Caledonia sees a landslide victory (98% percent) for remaining part of France. Voter turnout was 59%.


French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac promises to grant New Caledonia autonomy and divide it into four regions.

April 22 to May 5: Just two days before a territorial council vote, FLNKS militants seize the Ouvéa Island police station, killing four gendarmes and taking 26 other unarmed gendarmes hostage. The standoff ends in a French army assault in which 19 Kanak separatists and two soldiers are killed.

June 26: New Caledonia signs the Matignon Accords, starting a gradual process of self-determination and decolonisation.


FLNKS head Jean-Marie Tjibaou is shot dead by Djubelly Wéa, a Kanak who blames Tjibaou for signing the Matignon Accords. Wéa is shot dead by one of Tjibaou’s bodyguards.


On May 5, the Nouméa Accord, signed by French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and the heads of the pro-union Rassemblement pour la Calédonie dans la République (RPCR) party and the FLNKS, sets out a 20-year decolonisation process. It is ratified by 71.86% of New Caledonians.

2018 to 2023 

The anti-independence vote wins referendums in 2018 (56.7%), 2020 (53.3%) and 2021 (96.5%). Pro-independence parties contest the validity of the 2021 vote, which is marked by a low voter turnout due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Macron urges pro- and anti-independence parties to reach an agreement on the status of the archipelago by the end of 2023, with a view to a change in the French Constitution in 2024.


On April 2, the French Senate approves a constitutional change enlarging the New Caledonian electorate to allow all natives and residents for at least 10 years the right to vote in provincial elections.

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

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.

Read moreColonial past haunts latest New Caledonia crisis

Pro-independence groups say that would dilute the vote of Indigenous Kanaks, who make up about 40 percent of the population.

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.

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.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)