NOUMEA, New Caledonia (AP) – The government of New Caledonia on Thursday elected the first independentist personality to the presidency of the archipelago of the South Pacific, a French territory which acquired a large degree of autonomy following the violence of 1988 and who is due to hold an independence referendum in five months.
Louis Mapou, a member of the indigenous Kanak population of New Caledonia, received six of the government’s 11 votes, while French loyalist Thierry Santa received four. A ballot was made blank.
Mapou, 62, is a member of the Kanak Liberation Party, or Palika, and the head of the National Union for Independence.
“We are going to work hard. New Caledonia needs it, ”Mapou said after the vote. “Many think that we will have a hard time working for everyone, but I can assure you that working for New Caledonia will be the watchword of our commitment.
The 270,000 inhabitants of the archipelago in eastern Australia include both descendants of European colonizers and Kanaks, who once suffered from strict policies of segregation.
The election ends an institutional crisis triggered in February when the five pro-independence members of the government resigned in opposition to the sale of a nickel factory.
New Caledonia has long faced an existential dilemma over its status as a French colony. A 1988 attack on gendarmes who were taken hostage and released after a deadly assault by special forces ultimately resulted in a peace deal.
A decade later, the Noumea Accord granted New Caledonia political power and broad autonomy and provides for up to three referendums.
In October, a majority of voters chose to stay in France instead of supporting independence, which led French President Emmanuel Macron to call for dialogue. The referendum was one of the last steps in a long-standing plan to ease tensions between pro-independence Kanaks and locals keen to stay in France.
Two years ago, 56.4% of participants in a similar referendum voted against independence. The third referendum is set for December 12.
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