France's Macron in New Caledonia, likely to tiptoe around independence issue

SYDNEY (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron arrived on Thursday in the French territory of New Caledonia on a visit likely to boost effort by those residents hoping a referendum will result in a rejection of independence, without reigniting conflict.

French President Emmanuel Macron gestures to onlookers after a Commemorative Service at the ANZAC war memorial in Sydney, May 2, 2018. AAP/David Moir/via REUTERS

The nickel-rich island, 1,200 km (750 miles) east of Australia and 20,000 km from France, erupted in fighting in the 1980s between supporters of independence and those who wanted to remain French.

Talks on the island’s future began in 1988 and a 1998 deal provided for a referendum on independence to be held by the end of 2018.

The vote is set to begin on Nov. 4 and tension has been simmering as it approaches.

“There are elements, those who favor independence, that have threatened to boycott the vote,” said Denise Fisher, a former Australian consul-general in the territory.

“The last vote that happened in 1987 in the thick of the civil war was a disaster because the Kanaks all boycotted it, it wasn’t seen a genuine referendum.”

Kanaks are the indigenous inhabitants of New Caledonia.

Macron is not expected to provide any voting recommendations, though Jonathan Pryke, director of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands Program, said his arrival would provide a boost to the remain campaign.

New Caledonia, one of five island territories spanning the Indo-Pacific held by France, is the centerpiece of Macron’s plan to increase its influence in the Pacific.

Australia and New Zealand have separately warned that China is seeking to exert influence through its international aid program in the Pacific. China denies that.

While not naming China, Macron said in Australia on Wednesday France’s expansion in the Pacific was to ensure a “rules-based development”.

“It’s to preserve necessary balances in the region. And it’s important with this - precisely this new context not to have any hegemony in the region,” Macron told reporters in Sydney.

Macron is expected to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the “Ouvea cave massacre” in which 19 indigenous separatists and two French soldiers were killed.

Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Robert Birsel