Pacific News Minute: French PM visits New Caledonia to Prepare for Independence Referendum

Apr 27, 2016

French Prime Minster Manuel Valls
Credit Wikipedia Commons

French Prime Minster Manuel Valls is on a three-day visit to New Caledonia.  The French South Pacific Territory is scheduled to hold a referendum on independence in 2018, but what's on the ballot and exactly who's eligible to vote remain to be decided...details from Neal Conan in the Pacific News Minute.

A couple of decades of unrest in New Caledonia ended in 1998, when pro and anti independence groups signed a 20 year agreement.  18 years later, the solidarity of both sides has splintered, but it's believed that most indigenous Kanaks want independence, while most others...European settlers and Polynesians, mostly ...prefer to remain part of France. 

But it's not clear that the referendum will offer a straight, up or down vote.  There could be an option that's been called soft independence, association with France and a high degree of local autonomy. 

New Caledonia has also hit hard times.  The economy depends almost entirely on rich deposits of nickel...about 20% of the world's supply.  A few years ago, a Swiss company called Glencore financed a big new processing plant in partnership with New Caledonia's pro-independence northern province that was supposed to bring jobs to the poorer side of the island.  By the time it was finished, though, nickel prices had crashed.  Glencore has warned that it's not in the business of burning cash, and may pull out as soon as June. 

The other big issue, is voter eligibility...Kanaks and anyone born on the island are automatically eligible...others have to prove they've been permanent residents since 1998.  After much argument, The local newspaper projects the election roll will list 84,000 Kanaks and 71,000 others.