Obstacles remain as New Caledonia prepares for independence vote


French prime minister Édouard Philippe is visiting the semi-autonomous overseas territory to help oversee preparations for the 2018 vote.

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A year ahead of the deadline for a referendum on independence from France, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe is visiting the semi-autonomous overseas territory of New Caledonia to help oversee preparations for the 2018 vote, reports FRANCE 24.

"The stakes for New Caledonia are considerable," French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said on Saturday at his first press briefing in the Caledonian capital Nouméa. Residents must decide by next November whether the archipelago will opt for full sovereignty, the result of an almost 30-year-long process.

Both Britain and France laid claim to parts of New Caledonia during the first half of the 1800s, but the archipelago became a French possession in 1853 when it was seized by Napoleon III and was used as a penal colony for much of the next half-century.

Today the 280,000-strong population of the archipelago is about 40 percent indigenous Kanak (of which most support independence) and about 30 percent European, with residents from the French overseas collective of Wallis and Futuna making up another 8 percent. A mixture of Tahitians, Indonesians, Vietnamese and others account for the other 22 percent.

Calls for independence became increasingly forceful in the 1980s and early 1990s, reaching a fever pitch on the eve of a Caledonian presidential vote in April 1988 when three French gendarmes were killed and another 27 were taken hostage by militants from the Kanak Socialist Liberation Front, who blamed the French government for the violence and demanded negotiations on independence.

The independence movement culminated in the 1998 Nouméa Accord, which agreed to transfer more and more governing responsibility from France to New Caledonia over a period of 20 years. The agreement also required France to allow a referendum to be held by November 2018 on whether New Caledonia should gain full independence.

Read more of this report from FRANCE 24.

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