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New Caledonia politicians in Paris for talks on crucial independence referendum

rfi.fr– MPs and politicians from the French pacific territory of New Caledonia are in Paris for a week of talks on the timing and framing of a third and binding referendum on independence from France.

Voters rejected the option of independence from France in both 2018 and 2020 but in April, the pro-independence party requested another vote.

Under the rules of the 1998 Nouméa Accord, that means a referendum must take place – at the latest by October 2022.

This week of talks in Paris is intended to try to thrash out when the next referendum should be held and what sort of question should be asked.

Prime Minister Jean Castex will insist that both pro and anti independence campaigners should be forced to explain clearly to voters what the consequences of their choice would be.

Among the questions New Caledonians will want answered is how the economic subsidies New Caledonia currently receives from Paris – 1.5 billion euros in 2019 – will be replaced.

According to Le Figaro newspaper, Paris has sent a letter to New Caledonian MPs, suggesting that if voters choose independence, Paris might offer some sort of “association accord”, in a bid to retain links with the Pacific territory and especially to try to stop it becoming part of China’s sphere of influence.

Key mining resources

The archipelago, colonized by Napoleon in 1853, has 25 per cent of the world’s nickel reserves and the coastlines around New Caledonia allow France strategic access to Pacific waters.

Around 41 per cent of the population of New Caledonia are indigenous Kanak people, who overwhelmingly back independence and live mostly in the northern part of the main island.

People of European origin, known as “Caldoches”, make up 24.1 per cent and vote fairly solidly to remain French while the remaining 35% of the 270,000 population, many originally from nearby countries, fall into both camps.

Although those who favour independence have lost both recent referenda, their share of the vote nevertheless appears to be growing. It rose from around 43% in 2018, to nearly 47 two years later.

Just Yes or No?

Philippe Gomès, a key figure in New Caledonian politics whose party is in the centre right UDI group, cautions against a referendum that offers just a binary choice of pro or anti independence.

He fears that a narrow win for either side would exacerbate divisions in what is already an extremely divided society. Memories of what amounted to a civil war between 1984-88 have not receded.

One of New Caledonia’s most well-known pro independence politicians, Louis Mapou, of UNI (Union Nationale pour l’Indépendance) has chosen to boycott the talks with Castex, the purpose of which, he said was “vague”.

Those in favour of independence say they would prefer to take their time and hold internal consultations before setting the referendum later in 2022.

“It serves no purpose to rush things,” says Gilbert Tyuienon, member of the UC delegation in Paris. “Let’s give ourselves time to prepare, something we didn’t do before,” adding that they should take into account the findings of a report on the consequences of a Yes/No vote, published recently.

Paris to stay neutral

Meanwhile, Pierre Frogier, from the anti independence Républicains party, told the press after the first round of discussions in Paris that the referendum would be better held “sooner rather than later,” so as not to be overshadowed by the presidential elections in May 2022.

“New Caledonia mustn’t let itself get caught up in the hysteria of the presidential election campaign, as was the case thirty years ago,” he said, referring to the 1988 race which saw Jacques Chirac up against François Mitterrand.

In any case, France’s overseas territories minister Sébastien Lecornu has said a date must be agreed upon before the end of June, and that an exchange with President Emmanuel Macron during the week could be envisaged.

But although Macron recently said that “France would be less beautiful without New Caledonia”, Paris is officially neutral on the matter and does not try to persuade those living on the archipelago that they should stay with France.

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