The authorities have vowed to re-establish the order at “whatever the cost” Armored police vehicle in Paita in France’s Pacific Ocean territory of New Caledonia on May 19, 2024. Delphine Mayeur / AFP

France has launched a “major operation” in its riot-stricken Pacific Ocean territory of New Caledonia in order to reclaim a key road linking the airport to the regional capital Noumea. The archepilago to the east of Australia has been swept by unrest and clashes that sparked by a controversial election reform pushed by Paris.

According to the French authorities, more than 600 gendarmes, including a hundred officers from Paris’ elite counterterrorism unit, were dispatched to regain control of the 60-kilometer-long Route Territoriale 1 and clear the roadblocks put up by the protesters.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmain wrote an X (formerly Twitter) on Sunday that the operation was “a success,” with over 76 barricades being dismantled. He added that more than 200 people were arrested. The highway, however, remains closed due to the debris removal, which could take several days.

France sends troops on 16,000km mission to quell unrest (VIDEOS) France sends troops on 16,000km mission to quell unrest (VIDEOS)

The riots erupted on May 13 and have so far claimed the lives of six people. The indigenous Kanak activists are protesting against the constitutional reform that would allow people who arrived in New Caledonia after 1998 to vote in local elections. The activists believe that the change would decrease the power of the indigenous population in favor of French settlers. The peaceful protests quickly descended into violence and looting, which local officials have already compared to the pro-independence armed uprising in the 1980s.

“Republican order will be re-established whatever the cost,” the French high commissioner in New Caledonia, Louis Le Franc, said in a televised address on Sunday. He warned that the rioters “will be risking the worst” if they do not back down.

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Colonized in the 19th century, New Caledonia is home to 270,000 people, with the Kanaks making up around 40%. Although it remains largely under French control – one of a few such territories in a post-colonial era – the archipelago was granted more autonomy in 1998 when the voting rights were restricted to locals living there prior to that year.

The presidents of four other French overseas territories – La Reunion in the Indian Ocean, Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, and French Guiana in South America, urged the French government on Sunday to scrap the reform, arguing that “only a political response can halt the rising violence and prevent a civil war.”

New Caledonia rejected independence from France in referendums held in 2018, 2020 and 2021. The last vote was marred by low attendance and calls to boycott from Kanak activists, who wanted the plebiscite to be postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (RT)