Riots have gripped France's New Caledonia for weeks
Riots have gripped France's New Caledonia for weeks AFP

France's president made a long-haul trip to the restive Pacific territory of New Caledonia on Thursday, urging a "return to peace" after deadly rioting, and vowing thousands of military reinforcements will be deployed for "as long as necessary".

Emmanuel Macron arrived in the capital Noumea after a 24-hour flight seeking ways to end more than a week of looting, arson and clashes that have left six people dead and hundreds injured.

As he exited the plane at Tontouta International Airport, the French leader told reporters he wanted to ensure that "as quickly as possible there will be a return to peace, calm, security".

"That is the absolute priority," Macron added, as he prepared to launch a day of intensive meetings with local leaders.

He is expected to spend about 12 hours on the ground.

France has ruled New Caledonia since the 1800s, but many Indigenous Kanaks still resent Paris' power over their islands and want fuller autonomy or independence.

"I don't know why our fate is being discussed by people who don't even live here," said Mike, a 52-year-old Kanak at a separatist roadblock north of the capital, on the eve of Macron's visit.

Since May 13, separatists have thrown up blocks that have cut off whole neighbourhoods and the main route to the international airport, which remains shuttered.

Nightly riots have seen scores of cars, schools, shops and businesses burned.

French authorities have imposed a state of emergency, placed separatist leaders under house arrest, banned alcohol sales and sent around 3,000 troops, police and other security reinforcements to quell the turmoil.

With tensions running high, even Macron's aides admit his visit is a high-stakes gamble that could help solve or help deepen the crisis.

"It's double or quits. It's a bet", said one presidential adviser, asking not to be named.

The fact that Macron is willing to make a long journey just weeks before European elections may show just how high the stakes are.

New Caledonia is 17,000 kilometres (10,500 miles) from the French mainland but remains both part of France and a strategic outpost in an increasingly contested region.

The archipelago's deadliest unrest in four decades was sparked by French plans to give voting rights to thousands of non-indigenous long-term residents, something Kanaks say would dilute the influence of their votes.

New Caledonia has on three occasions rejected independence in referendums.

But the last of those ballots took place during the Covid-19 pandemic and was boycotted by much of the Kanak population.

Macron ruled out going back on the result of the referendums, saying peace could not come at the cost of ignoring the will of the people or "somehow denying the road that has already been taken".

Macron last visited New Caledonia in July 2023, on a trip that was boycotted by Kanak representatives.

AFP correspondents said Kanaks were still manning reinforced roadblocks on the day of Macron's visit, flying pro-independence flags and displaying protest banners against the electoral reform.

The pro-independence FLNKS party said roadblocks would be strengthened and "welcome committees" set up to greet the president, backed by the CCAT activist group that has organised protests against voting reform.

The CCAT said it would block major routes leading to the north of the island throughout the day on Thursday.

Armed locals, of French and other origins, have set up their own neighbourhood barricades.

Hundreds of tourists from Australia and New Zealand have begun to flee the turmoil, although hundreds more remain trapped.

But there was anger Thursday that Macron's visit -- which includes a large security footprint at both Noumea's domestic and international airports -- had put further repatriation flights on hold.

Australia's department of foreign affairs warned trapped travellers in an email on Wednesday that "French authorities advise that significant operational demands will preclude flights tomorrow."

On Thursday, New Zealand's Foreign Minister Winston Peters weighed in, saying it was "frustrating" for New Zealanders that "unfortunately, we have not received approvals from France yet for any flights today".

"We continue to engage urgently with the French Government in Wellington, Noumea and Paris asking that it approves the next flights home as rapidly as possible," he said.

Efforts to reopen the international airport for commercial flights have been repeatedly delayed. But operators hope operations will resume on Saturday.

French President Emmanuel Macron (C) walks alongside French High Commissioner to New Caledonia, Louis Le Franc (3rd L) upon arrival at Noumea, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia
French President Emmanuel Macron (C) walks alongside French High Commissioner to New Caledonia, Louis Le Franc (3rd L) upon arrival at Noumea, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia AFP