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French PM ends three day visit to New Caledonia
4:45 pm GMT+12, 22/07/2010, New Caledonia
French Prime Minister, François Fillon has on Monday ended a three-day visit to New Caledonia, where he attended a controversial flag raising ceremony including, for the first time, the pro-independence Kanak flag. He assured New Caledonia’s administration of France’s commitment towards greater autonomy and possible independence.

Fillon, who came to New Caledonia as part of a Pacific tour that also included Japan started his visit to New on Saturday with a symbolic gesture: the official flag raising ceremony of both the French national flag and the local pro-independence banner, which had been the FLNKS (Kanak Socialist National Liberation front) symbol for the past twenty years.

The move was earlier endorsed, last week, by the local Parliament, the Congress, but also accentuated divisions across the political spectrum.

Some opponent to the joint flag notion, including the President of the local government, Philippe Gomès, had earlier favoured the idea of a new flag that would have promoted the notion of “common destiny” enshrined
in the autonomy Nouméa Accord, signed in 1998 by both pro-French and pro-independence parties.

Nouméa Lord Mayor Jean Lèques was reluctant to the idea of raising both flags in front of his town hall, saying he was now awaiting a memo from the French Government on the matter before making any move.

Still on the symbolic register, Fillon also at the weekend travelled to the small village of Tiendanite, where slain Kanak leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou is buried.

The French PM laid a wreath in homage to the charismatic leader who was murdered in 1989 by one hardliner within his own movement, one year after he signed a precursor to the Nouméa Accord, the Matignon-Oudinot Accords, with pro-French leader Jacques Lafleur, under the auspices of the French government.

The 1988 accord effectively allowed a restoration of law and order in New Caledonia after nearly five years of quasi civil war on the independence issue.

The joint flag concept is said to be in line with the Tjibaou-Lafleur handshake, but also in the perspective of the Pacific Games that New Caledonia will host in 2011.

During his visit, on Saturday, Fillon also for the first time in the local parley’s history, was invited to deliver a speech in front of New Caledonia’s elected Congress members.

“For over 150 years, France and New Caledonia have shared their history. The Nouméa Accord underlines the shadow of the colonial era, the loss of identity and … of dignity for the Kanaks, the bloody revolts followed by brutal repression. But it also reveals a part of light in this period … French and New Caledonia’s history has often been painful, there have been moment of tragedy, but also moments of fraternity. Kanaks, Caledonians descending from Europeans, Asians or Pacific islanders, from metropolitan French, we all share this history and we are compelled to take responsibility of this heritage, together”, Fillon told the Congress members.

He stressed that France would remain “loyal” and stay beside New Caledonia as the French territory will have to find, over the next few years, a new post-Nouméa Accord formula in order to define itself as an entity.

In June 2010, in Paris, a follow-up committee of political parties noted that in the near future, a new team of experts would be formed in order to identify possible options for New Caledonia, ranging from total independence to intermediary statuses such as the “free association” implemented in several Pacific island countries.

“What will this solution be? Straightforward independence, independence with a strong remaining link to the French republic or an autonomy that will have been pushed to its maximal limits? I know each of the political movements here has its own preference. I want to tell you that mine goes for maintaining this link that unites us for over 150 years”, he said, adding that another option would be that a whole new formula be found, in line with the innovative character of the Nouméa Accord.

“But at the end of the day, it will be up to New Caledonia’s population to make the choice”.

In line with the Nouméa Accord, a window will open in 2014 and until 2018 for a possible referendum on self-determination.

Each year, France directly injects some 1.5 billion Euros (1.9 billion US dollars) into New Caledonia.
On the economic level, Fillon also projected that in the near future, New Caledonia’s current mining projects would allow it to become the second world producer of the ore, for which it is deemed to hold about a quarter of the world reserves in its soil.


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