French to vote on New Caledonia peace plan

While voters in France may yawn, New Caledonians are campaigning with a vengeance. On Sunday, French voters will endorse or reject a peace plan for the future of the South Pacific colony. For years, pro-independence Kanaks (native islanders) and French loyalists in New Caledonia have fought over the territory. Twenty-eight people died in violence before French elections earlier this year.

When France's new Socialist government came to power last spring, one of Michel Rocard's first acts as prime minister was to push for a solution. In August, the Matignon Accord was signed by leaders of New Caledonia's two major political parties on the left and right.

The accord will divide New Caledonia into three regions, with two likely to be under Kanak rule. After 10 years of limited self-government, a plebiscite on the colony's independence will be held. If voters endorse the accord on Sunday, this plebiscite will be written into the French Constitution so future governments cannot renege.

Most New Caledonians hailed the pact as a significant step for peace. Six months ago, few would have predicted that reconciliation was possible. And Mr. Rocard appeared to have scored a major political coup.

But in France apathy has taken hold.

This referendum marks the seventh time the French have gone to the ballot box this year. Former President Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing, says the country is suffering from a ``saturation of democracy.'' French citizens are having trouble getting excited about a colony 12,500 miles away.

Former Prime Minister Jacques Chirac is trying to capitalize on such sentiments. Mr. Chirac is telling his Rally for the Republic (RPR) Party supporters to abstain. For all of these reasons, voter turnout may not even reach 40 percent, political analysts say.

While the referendum is expected to pass by a wide margin, if turnout is as low as predicted, Rocard's accord will be billed as a hollow achievement with little domestic political currency. Indeed, his opponents will likely call it an embarrassment.

Apathy is not a problem in New Calendonia. Voter turnout is expected to be high. But extremists on the left and right are vigorously campaigning against the accord and could make it a close vote.

The right-wing National Front complains New Caledonia's main French loyalist party, the Rally for New Caledonia in the Republic (RPCR), led by Jacques La Fleur has given too much ground. The RPCR is the local arm of Chirac's RPR. A vote for independence in 1998 is unlikely, they say, but why give Kanaks room to maneuver.

Extremists on the left are criticizing Jean-Marie Tjibaou, head of the main pro-independence party, the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), of giving too much away. Ten years is too long to wait for an independence vote and the outcome is too uncertain, they argue.

Several sources in New Caledonia say the mood is shifting, and support for the accord plan is weakening. ``People are suspicious of Tjibaou and La Fleur suddenly working together after so many years of fighting,'' says a longtime resident of Noum'ea, the territory's capital.

But given that New Caledonia's two main political parties - the RPCR and the FLNKS - both support the accord, it is unlikely suspicions or extremist slogans will undermine approval for the peace plan.

``The entire population is tired of fights,'' says Jacques Boenigkih, a FLNKS member and Sydney-based economic development specialist. ``We all want to assure that there will be peace for 10 years. In France, it's different. Once again the issues are being reduced to a matter of French internal politics.''

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