France: 'Closing the colonial chapter' — New Caledonia braces for independence referendum

The group of islands known as New Caledonia, some 750 miles (1,210km) off eastern Australia, has had more to do with Paris than the Pacific in modern times, yet this could all change as its 270,000 residents gear up for an historic independence referendum on November 4. The question: ‘Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent? Yes or no.’ Despite the 19... Еще,500km (12,000 mile) distance, the country has been under French control since Napoleon III annexed the islands in 1853. The ties were further entrenched when New Caledonians, its native Kanak population, were granted French citizenship, and in 1946 the islands were absorbed as an overseas territory. However, this colonial legacy is wearing thin on some of the archipelago’s residents. Rock Wamytan, President of the UC-FLNKS et Nationalistes parliamentary group, is among them. He claims that the referendum would 'close the colonial chapter.' “In case the ‘yes’ wins, the country will become independent. We will, of course, put everything in place with the help of the French State, as promised by President Emmanuel Macron,” he said, highlighting what his opponents claim is New Caledonia’s reliance on Paris. Sonia Backes, a loyalist and the President of the group Les Republicains in the New Caledonian Congress, is one such opponent. Defying Wamytan, she feels that New Caledonia would not be able to sustain itself were it to cut ties to Metropolitan France, which oversees education, healthcare and the military. «An independent New Caledonia would mean poverty for all and permanent conflicts because of its incapacity to have the resources to administrate itself,» she explained, adding independence would be ‘dangerous’ and the 'worst solution.' French presence is being brought under the microscope in November largely because of a two-decade-long agreement, the Noumea Accord, between Paris and New Caledonia which specified a referendum must be held before the start of 2019. Macron himself is set to visit at the start of May as he battles to keep hold of the outpost. Macron fuelled the debate by saying remaining was the only way of 'guaranteeing peace' but cynics point to the archipelago’s wealth of natural resources, it is thought to be the home to around a third of the world's nickel, and multinational companies’ designs on them. Melanesian Progressive Union leader Victor Tutugoro says New Caledonia's natural bounty is not being exploited as effectively as it could be. «Despite three factories in the country and one offshore, we exploit only 12 percent of the mines. We could, for instance, enlarge the exploited zones,» he said, adding the Caledonian economy would be able to sustain itself. High levels of unemployment, crime and drug abuse have also left locals angry with what they see as French mismanagement. Backes, however, denies France is responsible for the ongoing social plight. «Today, New Caledonians have the possibility to access high education, regardless of their social or ethnic background. Everyone has access to free healthcare. And all of this is allowed by France,» she says. The debate, however, has not always been so civil. Blood has been spilt in the long run up to November 4. Thirty-five hostages were taken in 1988, with militants murdering four paramilitary police officers in hope of forcing through independence. France responded with force, freeing the hostages but killing most of the self-rule militants while two more policemen lost their lives. «The day New Caledonia is independent, I will be free of the weight of a long fight that started in the 80s. I experienced every step

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