Schools, Cars Burn in New Caledonia Ahead of Macron Visit 

Burnt cars and barricades are seen on a roadblock at the entrance to the Montravel district in Noumea, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia, on May 21, 2024. (AFP)
Burnt cars and barricades are seen on a roadblock at the entrance to the Montravel district in Noumea, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia, on May 21, 2024. (AFP)
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Schools, Cars Burn in New Caledonia Ahead of Macron Visit 

Burnt cars and barricades are seen on a roadblock at the entrance to the Montravel district in Noumea, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia, on May 21, 2024. (AFP)
Burnt cars and barricades are seen on a roadblock at the entrance to the Montravel district in Noumea, France's Pacific territory of New Caledonia, on May 21, 2024. (AFP)

Arsonists torched schools and hundreds of cars overnight in New Caledonia, officials said Wednesday, as President Emmanuel Macron embarked on a surprise visit aiming to end nine days of deadly riots on the French Pacific archipelago.

Macron left Paris on Tuesday on a flight to the troubled territory, a popular holiday destination where roads are now littered with charred vehicles, and scores of shops, schools and other buildings are in cinders.

Clashes have left six people dead and hundreds injured since unrest erupted May 13 on the Pacific islands, home to 270,000 people.

French authorities said the violence had eased since 1,050 troops, tactical police and national security reinforcements from Paris were deployed, including to "highly sensitive" areas.

Nevertheless, two primary schools and 300 cars in a dealership were torched in the territory's capital Noumea during the night, the mayor's office told AFP.

The deadliest unrest in four decades has been blamed on French plans to give voting rights to thousands of non-indigenous residents, which Indigenous Kanaks say will dilute their votes.

Police have arrested more than 280 "rioters" since the troubles began, the French authorities said.

- Trapped tourists flee -

Tourists trapped in the territory have begun to flee.

Australia and New Zealand sent an initial batch of military planes to Noumea's small domestic Magenta airport on Tuesday, repatriating "about 100 people", according to French authorities on the island.

"When we landed, it was just like 'Oh, thank God we're here!'" said Mary Hatten, who had spent a week holed up in a Noumea hotel, after touching down in Brisbane.

Further flights will be organized until the main La Tontouta International Airport reopens to commercial flights, French officials said.

The airport operator says commercial flights should resume on Saturday morning.

Macron aims to "listen to, talk and hold discussions with New Caledonian elected officials" in an attempt to restore order, an official close to the president told AFP in Paris.

He wants to "give answers to the many legitimate questions Caledonians are asking, both on the reconstruction side and the political side", the official said.

One Kanak manning an unofficial roadblock north of the capital Noumea said Macron needed to understand Indigenous opposition to the vote reform.

"I don't know why our fate is being discussed by people who don't even live here," said the 52-year-old, who gave only his first name Mike.

"We are the people of the country, not you or the others. No, it's us," he told AFP.

The voice of local Kanaks "is not being listened to, not being heard", he said.

- Barricades -

French security forces have removed more than 90 roadblocks, authorities said.

But Kanak separatists, some masked and wielding homemade catapults, are still manning makeshift roadblocks including on the main route to the international airport, AFP correspondents said.

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

Local prosecutors say around 400 shops and businesses have been damaged.

Kanaks make up about 40 percent of the population.

Many of them oppose the plan to extend voting rights to those who have lived in the territory for at least 10 years.

But anti-independence representatives want it pushed through.

Withdrawing "would prove the wreckers, the looters and the rioters right," said Nicolas Metzdorf, a New Caledonia MP for Macron's Renaissance party.

Paris has for now held off extending a 12-day state of emergency, which has led to a night-time curfew, house arrests of suspected ringleaders, and bans on TikTok, alcohol sales, carrying weapons and gatherings.

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

But almost two centuries on, opinion is split roughly along ethnic lines over whether the islands should be part of France, autonomous or independent.



Iran Presidential Hopefuls Debate Economy Ahead of Election

Presidential candidate Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf speaks during a campaign event in Tehran, Iran June 18, 2024. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via Reuters
Presidential candidate Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf speaks during a campaign event in Tehran, Iran June 18, 2024. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via Reuters
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Iran Presidential Hopefuls Debate Economy Ahead of Election

Presidential candidate Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf speaks during a campaign event in Tehran, Iran June 18, 2024. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via Reuters
Presidential candidate Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf speaks during a campaign event in Tehran, Iran June 18, 2024. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via Reuters

The six candidates vying to succeed ultraconservative president Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash, focused on revitalizing Iran's sanctions-hit economy in their first debate ahead of next week's election.

The contenders -- five conservatives and a sole reformer -- faced off in a four-hour live debate, vowing to address the financial challenges affecting the country's 85 million people.

Originally slated for 2025, the election was moved forward after Raisi's death on May 19 in a helicopter crash in northern Iran.

Long before the June 28 election, Iran had been grappling with mounting economic pressures, including international sanctions and soaring inflation.

"We will strengthen the economy so that the government can pay salaries according to inflation and maintain their purchasing power," conservative presidential hopeful Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf said.

Ghalibaf, Iran's parliament speaker, also pledged to work towards removing crippling US sanctions reimposed after then US president Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran's economy grew by 5.7 percent in the year to March 2024, with authorities targeting a further eight percent growth this year, driven by hydrocarbon exports.

The sole reformist candidate, Massoud Pezeshkian, said he would seek to build regional and global relations to achieve this growth.

He also called for easing internet restrictions in the country where Facebook, Instagram, Telegram and X are among the social media platforms banned.

Reformists, whose political influence has waned in the years since the 1979 revolution, have fallen in behind Pezeshkian after other moderate hopefuls were barred from standing.

Ultraconservative former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, however, said Iran did not need to repair its relations with the West.

He took aim at Trump, saying his policy of "maximum pressure" against Iran had "failed miserably".

- 'Maximum pressure' -

In the absence of opinion polls, Ghalibaf, Jalili and Pezeshkian are seen as the frontrunners for Iran's second highest-ranking job.

Ultimate authority in the state is wielded by the supreme leader rather the president with 85-year-old Ali Khamenei holding the post for 35 years.

Incumbent Vice President Amirhossein Ghazizadeh-Hashemi said during the debate he would seek to lower inflation following a "political leadership style similar to that of Martyr Raisi."

Raisi easily won Iran's 2021 election in which no reformist or moderate figures were allowed to run. Backed by Khamenei he had been tipped to possibly replace the supreme leader.

Iran’s relations with the West continued to suffer, particularly following the outbreak of the October 7 Gaza war.

Tehran's support for the Palestinian armed group Hamas, coupled with ongoing diplomatic tensions over Iran's nuclear program have hastened the decline.

Mostafa Pourmohammadi, the only cleric in the running, blamed international sanctions for "blocking the economy" and "making financial transactions impossible".

Tehran's conservative mayor, Alireza Zakani, said the US sanctions were "cruel" but were not the main problem behind Iran's economic hardship.

"We should emphasize the economic independence of the country, de-dollarize the economy and rely on our own national currency," he said.