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Macron visits French territory New Caledonia ahead of independence referendum

Ludovic Marin, AFP | French President Emmanuel Macron arrives in New Caledonia’s capital Nouméa on May 3, 2018.

French President Emmanuel Macron starts Thursday a highly symbolic visit to New Caledonia, a French territory in the South Pacific that is getting ready to vote on its independence.

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The nickel-rich island, 1,200 km (750 miles) east of Australia and 20,000 km from France, erupted in fighting in the 1980s between supporters of independence and those who wanted to remain French.

Talks on the island’s future began in 1988 and a 1998 deal provided for a referendum on independence to be held by the end of 2018.

The vote is set to begin on Nov. 4 and tension has been simmering as it approaches. Voters in the self-determination referendum will answer the question: "Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?"

“There are elements, those who favour independence, that have threatened to boycott the vote,” said Denise Fisher, a former Australian consul-general in the territory.

“The last vote that happened in 1987 in the thick of the civil war was a disaster because the Kanaks all boycotted it, it wasn’t seen a genuine referendum.”

Kanaks are the indigenous inhabitants of New Caledonia.

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Macron is not expected to provide any voting recommendations, though Jonathan Pryke, director of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands Program, said his arrival would provide a boost to the remain campaign, which observers say is currently ahead based on  electoral results and recent polls.

New Caledonia, one of five island territories spanning the Indo-Pacific held by France, is the centrepiece of Macron’s plan to increase its influence in the Pacific.

Australia and New Zealand have separately warned that China is seeking to exert influence through its international aid programme in the Pacific. China denies that.

While not naming China, Macron said in Australia on Wednesday France’s expansion in the Pacific was to ensure a “rules-based development”.

“It’s to preserve necessary balances in the region. And it’s important with this -- precisely this new context not to have any hegemony in the region,” Macron told reporters in Sydney.

During his visit, Macron will hand the Caledonian government the document that stated the archipelago became a French possession in 1853.

He will also attend Saturday ceremonies marking the 30th anniversary of  the Ouvéa "hostage taking and cave massacre", when indigenous Kanak separatists took French military police hostage on Ouvéa island. Two gendarmes and 19 hostage-takers died.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)

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