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New Caledonia's road to independence
Pacific correspondent Sean Dorney reports from New Caledonia.

New Caledonia is one of the last territories in the Pacific yet to achieve self-government.

Its links to France remain strong but it also has fierce pro-independence forces.

Secessionist unrest in the 1980s and 90s saw the signing of an accord under which a referendum on independence will be held before the end of this decade.

Pacific correspondent Sean Dorney reports from New Caledonia.
SEAN DORNEY, REPORTER: Australia's Governor General, Quentin Bryce, was received in New Caledonia during her recent Pacific trip with full military honours.

It was the first time an Australian head of state has ever visited the French Pacific possession.

Such a visit would have been unthinkable in the 1980s, when there was virtual civil war between the indigenous, pro-independence Kanaks and the anti -independents descendants of French settlers.

QUENTIN BRYCE, AUSTRALIAN GOVERNOR-GENERAL: I wanted to come here to acknowledge the long standing friendship between the people of France, the people of New Caledonia, and the people of Australia.

My discussions will provide great insights into the progress of the Noumea Accord in building a common destiny for your diverse peoples.

SEAN DORNEY: The Noumea Accord followed on from the agreements that brought the violence to an end. It provides for the gradual transfer of powers from France to the government in New Caledonia, with a referendum after 2014 on whether control of matters like foreign affairs, police and justice should be handed over.

NIC MACLELLAN, AUTHOR AND FREELANCE JOURNALIST: The Noumea Accord is quite unique in French law and there are complexities. France is described in its constitution as "the indivisible Republic", so how can you divide off part of the Republic?

SEAN DORNEY: The president of New Caledonia, Harold Martin, is the leader of one of the anti-independence parties.

After he had a working breakfast with Australia's Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Islands Affairs, Richard Marles, I asked him what New Caledonia's future status could be.

HAROLD MARTIN, PRESIDENT OF NEW CALEDONIA: (Translation): So the starting point is that the end of the Noumea Accord cannot be the status quo and it cannot be independence either.

So we will all work with the best possible solution with the help of three world class experts designated by the state.

SEAN DORNEY: Under the Noumea Accord, there's a power sharing arrangement. The main pro-independence coalition, the FLNKS (Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front)) has a number of ministries in Mr Martin's government and a senior FLNKS leader, Rock Wamytan, is speaker of the congress.

But the Kanaks make up only 45 per cent of the population.

President Martin says he does not think independence is viable.

HAROLD MARTIN: (Translation): It is impossible on a political level as there is a vast majority of people here who do not want independence. And it's impossible on an economic level because what France gives us every year weighs much more than the grand total of our tax revenue.

Socially, independence would not be possible either because it would only widen the social fractures that already exist here between the communities.

NIC MACLELLAN: France does put a lot of money into New Caledonia, over $1 billion dollars, which is a huge amount of a country of only 250,000 people. But a lot of that money is boomerang aid. It flows back to France through payments for goods and services, through payments to public servants, to soldiers and so on.

The vast majority of Kanaks, the indigenous people of New Caledonia, want full independence.

SEAN DORNEY: Whereas once Australia was great critic of France in the Pacific, things have changed.

RICHARD MARLES, AUSTRALIAN PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY FOR PACIFIC ISLAND AFFAIRS: We are both stable, liberal democracies which hold the same values about the way we want to see the world and I think we have a historic role together.

SEAN DORNEY: Australia is also supporting New Caledonia's bid to become a full member of the Pacific Islands forum.

NIC MACLELLAN: In January this year, former foreign minister Kevin Rudd met with his French counterpart, Alain Juppe, and signed a joint declaration on strategic partnership.

The name says it all. Australia sees France as a partner, globally and indeed in the region, and into the future. And these close ties are raising some eyebrows among the FLNKS who worry that Australia is, in the long run, going to side with France as the decision on political status comes to the fore.

SEAN DORNEY: An indication of the divisions that remain below the surface in New Caledonia is that in the first round of voting in the French president election, the far right National Front's Marine La Pen collected a significant proportion of the vote in this French Pacific possession.
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