The French government has tried to calm tensions on the south Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia after four people died and 23 were injured in clashes during a protest at the high cost of local air travel.
Two armed groups clashed on Saturday night outside the airport on Maré, a small island of 6,000 people, one of several that make up France’s exotic “overseas collectivity”.
For more than 10 days, several local airports on the islands had been blockaded as protesters complained that the price of local flights had become extortionate. The protest was part of a wider anger at the growing divide between rich and poor.
The local airline, Air Caledonie, warned that it was facing bankruptcy because of the demonstrations and that the tourist industry would be badly damaged.
A “passengers’ collective” had barricaded Maré airport and blocked entry to a local village. On Saturday night, 300 people from the Ghuama district, whose chief, Nidoish Naisseline, is the airline’s chairman, tried to break up the protest.
Violence ensued between the two groups of about 300 people each. Stones were thrown, then shots were fired and four young men were killed. The Agence France-Presse correspondent described people armed with hunting rifles and machetes, on roads lined with burnt-out cars.
France’s high commissioner, Albert Dupuy, called it “a nightmare day”.
The French Socialist party warned that with endemic unemployment for indigenous locals and a big divide between the rich and poor, New Caledonia was about to tip into an “explosion” of social unrest.
The French minister for overseas territories, Marie-Luce Penchard, rushed back from holiday to hold urgent talks in Paris, announcing mediation by religious groups. She said the dispute was not just about air tickets, but also about land ownership on the island. Gendarmes were flown to Maré by helicopter to clear the airport barricades.
The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is expected to go ahead with his planned visit to New Caledonia in three weeks. His presidency has seen unrest in France’s overseas outposts. In 2009, after a six-week general strike over high prices and social inequality rocked Guadeloupe – the Caribbean island and French “overseas department” – Sarkozy promised a vast programme of aid measures but many feel they have yet to benefit.
New Caledonia is an overseas “collectivity” rather than a fully-fledged part of France. A rise in pro-independence feeling among indigenous locals and resistance by some of the locally-born people of European descent has led to political tension. Earlier this year, there were four months of political instability and vacuum as the archipelago struggled to form a government. In the 1980s, violent unrest led France to send in paratroopers. A referendum on independence is expected to be held between 2014 and 2019.