Pro-France rally as Macron visits New Caledonia ahead of independence vote

Noumea (AFP) –


Thousands of pro-France campaigners on Friday filled the streets of New Caledonia's capital as President Emmanuel Macron visited the remote French archipelago six months ahead of a key independence referendum.

Demonstrators dressed in red, white and blue, the vast majority of European origin, waved French flags and sang the national anthem as they marched through Noumea, with police putting turnout at around 4,000.

"We are trying to show the president and people in Metropolitan France that the majority of Caledonians want to stay in the French Republic," said Sonia Backes, leader of the anti-independence political party that organised the event.

An independence referendum is due to take place in November -- the culmination of decades of campaigning by separatists to break from their old colonial master.

The territory is a strategic foothold for Paris in the Asia Pacific region, but economic inequality has persisted despite efforts to improve living standards for the indigenous Kanak population.

The ethnic group, the majority of whom support a full break with France, make up around 40 percent of New Caledonia's roughly 270,000 residents.

Backes said the protest was "peaceful and friendly" but expressed disappointment that Macron had not paid more attention to pro-French Caledonians during his visit, which began on Thursday.

While the march was taking place, the president was in the north of the tiny French overseas territory, around 280 kilometres (170 miles) from the capital.

Better known for pristine beaches and diverse wildlife, the South Pacific islands are an extensive nickel reserve for France and present a "geopolitical opportunity", Macron said in Sydney this week, while also noting their economic potential.

"France provides money and everything we have here. What would we do without it?" a demonstrator named Malia told AFP.

As the march began, a group of Kanak women surrounded by police unfurled a pro-independence flag and shouted at the campaigners, accusing them of "dividing people".