New Caledonia’s independence referendum passed a major hurdle last week. After marathon talks in Paris, pro and anti-independence factions reached agreement on a fundamental point - who gets to vote. We have more from Neal Conan in today’s Pacific News Minute.
19 years ago, the French government, pro-French Loyalists and the Kanak Liberation Front signed an agreement that ended inter-communal violence. The Nouméa Accord called for power to be transferred to local government, with a referendum on independence within 20 years.
Last week, with the deadline approaching, Prime Minister Edouard Phillipe led nine hours of talks in Paris that settled the critical question of voter eligibility with a compromise. Eleven thousand people will be added to the rolls – 7,000 kanaks. That’s what the indigenous Melanesians call themselves, and 4,000 ethnic Europeans.
The agreement resolves a long standing dispute which could’ve allowed whichever side that loses the referendum to characterize it as illegitimate. Prime Minister Philipe said, “Even beyond that, we have trust, which is just as important.” The meeting also agreed on U.N. election observers and on the location of polling stations.
The major problem remaining, is the wording of the question to be put before the voters. Prime Minister Philipe said he will visit New Caledonia before the end of this year. President Emmanuel Macron promises to visit before the referendum itself - there no date set yet, but it has been held before next November.
New Caledonia has a population of about 275,000, about 45 percent of them Kanak. The island struggles with high rates of unemployment, alcoholism and youth crime.