3 Feb 2016

Crucial talks for New Caledonia's future

5:48 pm on 3 February 2016

Preparations for New Caledonia's independence referendum are assuming growing urgency.

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Three flags flown in New Caledonia, from left to right: the separatist FLNKS flag, a provincial flag and the French Tricolore Photo: AFP

The vote will be in 2018 but sticking points remain - and they will be raised at a key three-day meeting in Paris this week.

French prime minister Manuel Valls will chair the meeting, which begins on Thursday. It will be attended by the so-called signatories of the 1998 Noumea Accord - a 20-year road map that will run out in two years.

The accord provides for a phased and irreversible transfer of powers from Paris to Noumea.

A New Caledonian anthem has been selected as the territory tries to forge what is being called its common destiny. A new flag, however, is proving elusive, with both the French Tricolore and the flag of the separatist Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) being flown.

Disputes over which flag should be chosen prompted four governments to collapse in 2011, triggering a reform of electoral law.

Infighting among both the anti- and pro-independence sides has delayed much of the work left to be done.

The anti-independence signatory of 1998, the RPCR Party, has over the years split into a number of factions, some of which reflect the fissures running through the French centre-right.

The FLNKS has also lost its coherence of old, with the parties making up the movement differing on certain policy issues.

Questions over electoral roll

The most urgent issue, though, is the electoral roll that determines who the voters that decide the territory's future will be.

The roll issue was so contentious last year that Mr Valls convened an extraordinary signatories' meeting to try to settle the dispute.

The French constitution restricts voting rights to those who have been in the territory since before 1998 but the FLNKS says more than 3000 ineligible residents are still listed as voters. The movement is getting exasperated at the French authorities' inability, or possibly unwillingness, to produce a roll beyond reproach.

Gerard Reignier from the pro-independence Caledonian Union, a faction of FLNKS, is one of those who has urged clarification. "We cannot go on working with lies, we cannot go on with fraud - it's time to repair'', he told a local television station last week.

Last month, a delegation from the UN visited the territory - and France has invited 13 UN observers to join 13 French magistrates next month as they resume the vetting of the roll.

The loyalists concede that if the roll is stacked with ineligible voters, the referendum outcome could be challenged and voided.

Fears of unrest

After the unrest of the 1980s, New Caledonia has had three decades of peace, which everybody is keen to maintain.

Yet delinquency and lawlessness, mainly by indigenous Kanaks, has reached worrying proportions, with reports of security forces being assaulted or shot at rising in frequency at an alarming rate.

Canala New Caledonia

A damaged sign in Canala, New Caledonia Photo: AFP

French overseas minister George Pau Langevin was asked in the senate to consider sending extra forces to contain the violence.

"We are in this senate all aware of the fragility of the situation in New Caledonia and we follow with a lot of determination what happens there. That's why this meeting of the signatories is very important," she said.

Fears of unrest have spawned calls to draft a new accord to follow the Noumea Accord, in order to maintain an arrangement that has secured relative peace..

The argument is that a referendum vote will divide the community.

The strongest party within the anti-independence camp, Caledonia Together, wants to delay a referendum until voters know what independence will mean in practice.

There is no agreement yet on what status will be sought. Ideas being floated include the option of creating an independent nation in association with France, similar to the arrangement between New Zealand and the Cook Islands.

France, however, has been firm on its view. In 2014, when French President Francois Hollande visited New Caledonia, he said the referendum would take place as stipulated in the accord.

Roch Wamytan

Roch Wamytan co-signed the Noumea Accord on behalf of FLNKS in 1998. Photo: AFP

Speaking in a television interview, Roch Wamytan - who co-signed the Noumea Accord on behalf of FLNKS in 1998 - also said the vote should be held.

"At some point, one has to give the Kanak people, that is the colonised people, as well as others who have arrived here as the result of history, the chance to have a say to know what sort of future the people, and above all the Kanak people, want," he said.

Questions over nickel wealth

During the meeting in Paris, the signatories will also discuss with the French state how New Caledonia should harness its nickel wealth - as the territory boasts about 20 percent of the world's known nickel reserves.

The price of nickel has plummeted in the past two years but the export of the metal remains the backbone of the economy.

When much of the world's economy slumped because of the global financial crisis in 2008, New Caledonia enjoyed a commodities boom with major investments in two plants.

An estimated total of $US14 billion was spent by Vale of Brazil to build a plant in Goro and by Glencore in its partnership with SMSP to set up the Koniambo plant.

The construction projects saw the arrival of expert labour but, on completion, nickel prices imploded.

Koniambo nickel plant

Glencore and SMSP teamed up to build the Koniambo nickel plant. Photo: AFP

In 2015, the two plants incurred hundreds of millions of dollars in losses but have said they remain committed to keeping operations going.

SLN's nickel plant in Noumea is New Caledonia's oldest and the traditional engine of its nickel sector. It needs a new power plant but SLN's parent company, French-owned Eramet, has deferred a decision on whether it will fund it.

Rival New Caledonian politicians have asked the French president whether the French state will help the ailing SLN nickel company.

This week's Paris talks will try to get some answers on how to maximise the benefit of the resources for the territory's future.

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