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French President Emmanuel Macron travels to New Caledonia amid protests

French President Emmanuel Macron traveled to New Caledonia to seek to quell protests over constitutional changes. File Photo by Gonzalo Fuentes/EPA-EFE
French President Emmanuel Macron traveled to New Caledonia to seek to quell protests over constitutional changes. File Photo by Gonzalo Fuentes/EPA-EFE

May 22 (UPI) -- French President Emmanuel Macron embarked on a trip to New Caledonia in the South Pacific Ocean amid deadly violence on the French territory as tensions between pro-independence demonstrators and French loyalists have erupted.

The protests on the islands, more than 9,300 miles away from France, have resulted in at least six deaths with Paris making the situation there the government's top priority.

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"Calm is returning, but the situation is not quite back to normal, and we are aware that much remains to be done before things return to normal," French government spokesperson Prisca Thevonot said.

Thevenot said Macron will "set up a mission" New Caledonia along with Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu and Overseas Minister Marie Gueveneoux.

Prime Minister Gabrial Attal said the group will seek to "restart a dialogue" between the two sides.

France claimed New Caledonia during its colonial era of 1853, followed by years of difficult segregation between the white French settlers and the native Kanak population. Many natives suffer from high poverty.

The protests erupted on May 13 after a French National Assembly vote on changes to the constitution to allow anyone living in New Caledonia for more than 10 years to vote to elect the local legislature, a right that had previously been granted only to citizens who settled there before 1998, which passed overwhelmingly on Tuesday.

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Maron last week sent a letter to Caledonian representatives, calling the changes a "democratic principle" while leaving open the possibility for more general reforms if the sides can agree on a deal that would end the protests.

The unrest had become so untenable this week that Australia and New Zealand evacuated their nationals from the semi-autonomous New Caledonia with government-sponsored plane flights.

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