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New Caledonia

French PM promises New Caledonia referendum and return of rebel chief's head

Jean-Marc Ayrault  at the Ouvéa cave
Jean-Marc Ayrault at the Ouvéa cave AFP

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has promised a referendum on independence for New Caledonia by 2019 and pledged to return the head of 19th-century rebel leader currently in a Paris museum on a visit to the Pacific territory.

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A referendum on whether New Caledonia remains part of France will take place in 2018 at the latest Ayrault said on Friday.

Paris will remain neutral, he said, thus differentiating the Socialist government from the previous president Nicolas Sarkozy, who declared himself personally favourable to the archipelago remaining French.

About 40 per cent of the population is made up of indigenous Kanaks, while about 30 per cent are of European origin, including mixed-race Caldoches. Others have origins elsewhere in the Pacific and Asia.

The ethnic divide and relations with France are an important factor in the islands’ politics.

Ayrault also promised to return the head of Kanak chief Ataï, who was decapitated after leading a rebellion against French land grabs in 1878, 25 years after France colonised the territory.

Ataï’s head, which was preserved and sent to France, was found in Paris’s Ethnographic Museum in 2011.

The chief has become a symbol for Kanak separatists but also symptomatic of divisions between clans, since he is said to have been killed by Kanaks from another region, who fought for the French.

On Saturday Ayrault called for reconciliation at the Ouvéa cave that was the scene of a hostage-taking that ended in the deaths of 19 separatists, four gendarmes and two French paras.

The hostage-taking and its bloody outcome led to a peace process that led to the devolution of many powers to local institutions and has since given rise to a reconciliation process.

"I wanted to be here among those whose mourning, remembrance and reconciliation have shown much promise for the future,” Ayrault said. “The forgiveness that has happened here is a great lesson for all, and the police and army have done the same on their side. I wish to unite these two memories in the same process of reconciliation and the same willingness to build the future of New Caledonia."

In 2011 director Mathieu Kassovitz’s released the film L'Ordre et la Morale (Rebellion), which is based on Ouvéa cave hostage-taking.

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