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They flew to New Caledonia for a romantic escape. Now they’re trapped as Macron tries to quell deadly riots

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When Maxwell Winchester and his wife arrived in the South Pacific island of New Caledonia nearly two weeks ago, they were excited for what would be their first child-free holiday since becoming parents.

But what was supposed to be a romantic getaway has instead left the Australian couple stranded and far from their children back in their home state Victoria, after deadly riots broke out across the French territory sparked by electoral changes from the national government.

In the hotel where they’re staying, food and medicine are running low, he said, and there is no sense of when help is arriving; evacuations for foreign nationals have paused on Thursday due to French President Emmanuel Macron arriving for talks.

“We have people who have run out of medicine … People are running out of food. Other Australians stranded have had to go scrounge coconuts to eat,” he said.

Now, the couple and other foreign nationals stuck on the island are desperately trying to find a way home, with commercial flights canceled and the main international airport closed.

“Our embassy went AWOL the first day, and we only first heard from (them) last night for the first time for a welfare call,” he said. “We’re frustrated with it all … What I’m hoping is that our government will evacuate us promptly.”

Australia and New Zealand began sending government planes to evacuate nationals starting Tuesday, with the Australian embassy in New Caledonia saying on Facebook that 108 Australians and other tourists were successfully transported from the island to Brisbane on two flights on Tuesday.

“We continue to work with partners to support the departure of all Australians who want to leave,” it said in a post on Wednesday.

But Winchester said he and other tourists have no sense of when it might be their turn. The local government estimates there are around 3,200 people waiting to leave or enter the island.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) says on its website it is “communicating directly with registered Australians in New Caledonia about departure options from New Caledonia,” and has instructed Australians on the island to register their details on the agency’s online portal.

Deadly unrest

Lying some 930 miles (roughly 1,500 kilometers) to the northeast of Brisbane, New Caledonia has long been a popular destination for both Australians and New Zealanders looking for some Pacific sunshine and beaches.

But it is also a hangover of France’s colonial past, a territory on the other side of the globe where many indigenous inhabitants suffer from entrenched poverty and have long chafed under Paris’ rule.

The latest protests, the worst since the 1980s, were sparked by anger among indigenous Kanak people over a constitutional amendment approved in France that would change who is allowed to participate in elections, which local leaders fear will dilute the Kanak vote.

The unrest has killed at least six people, and has left a trail of burned cars and looted stores, with road barricades restricting access to medicine and food.

The situation got so bad that Macron has been forced to fly some 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles), landing on an island seething with resentment from indigenous community leaders, business owners and stranded tourists.

Macron arrived in New Caledonia on Thursday, telling reporters that “a return to peace” was his top priority – but that French security forces will stay in the territory for “as long as necessary, even during the Olympic Games.”

Three thousand French security forces have already been deployed, with a number of those still arriving Thursday, he said. He added that he believes that the state of emergency “should not be extended,” provided that all political forces on the island issue a “clear call for the roadblocks to be lifted.”

As part of his visit, Macron will “set up a mission” in New Caledonia, government spokesperson Prisca Thevenot said at a press conference earlier this week. The visit comes as France prepares for the Paris Olympic Games, which will be held from July 26 to August 11.

Roads barricaded

But Macron’s arrival was little solace for Winchester and his wife, who are staying at a resort outside the city center. They described the anxiety and desperation inside among hotel guests and staff alike. The resort has barricaded all roads leading to the hotel, leaving just one entrance that is guarded 24/7, he said.

And among the stranded tourists, frustration is growing over what they say is a lack of assistance or clear instructions from their governments.

The Australian government is only notifying its nationals of evacuation plans 30 minutes before the flight “for security reasons,” said Winchester – meaning “everyone is constantly on edge, and they’re frightened to leave the hotel rooms in case they get a call telling them (to get on the plane).”

“The Australian Government stands ready to assist more tourists out of New Caledonia and has planes ready to fly. We have not been given clearances for additional flights. We know this is frustrating for the Australians who remain,” she wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “We are working to ensure flights tomorrow.”

With the international airport closed, evacuation flights can only leave from the domestic airport, located close to the city center – which is largely inaccessible to people staying further away, like Winchester and other guests at their resort, due to roadblocks and gun violence on the main highways.

“My wife and I don’t have a car, so we have no way to get to the city if we’re put on a flight,” he said. “We don’t know if they’re going to come and evacuate us from the location we’re in or not. But to drive through to the city is very dangerous in the moment.”

New Zealand nationals on the island are in a similar predicament – with their governments instructing them to drive to the city and leave their cars at a hotel to avoid being hijacked, before being picked up there for evacuations, he said.

“And with Macron’s visit, it could get worse,” he said. “The French government has not handled this well. And if (Macron) says the wrong things and then goes back to France, it could all kick off again – that’s our fear.”

In the meantime, stranded foreign nationals continue searching for a way out – while racking up hefty bills, with Winchester describing tourists spending tens of thousands of dollars on food, accommodation and supplies.

The couple is now trying to travel into the city with some New Zealand nationals, and find a flight out with them – hoping for safety in numbers on the perilous drive.

“From our own government now, their position is the French will fly us out, and we’re not confident in the French government’s ability to keep us safe,” he said.

This post appeared first on cnn.com