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Geopolitical Hotspot: New Caledonia

Article excerpt

The cost of air travel can often provoke feelings of irritation and frustration, but in August, in the South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia (Nouvelle-Caledonie), it provoked significantly more. On the island of Mare, rival clans clashed over an airport blockade set up by residents protesting against an increase in domestic airfares, leaving four people dead and more than 20 injured.

Notwithstanding the role of rising air travel costs, the confrontation between rival factions is better understood as indicative of a broader malaise affecting New Caledonia. Widespread unemployment, coupled with widening economic divisions between rich and poor, is fuelling unrest. In May, thousands joined protests and a three-day rolling strike over the high cost of living.

Located in the southwest Pacific about 1,200 kilometres from Australia (but almost 18,000 kilometres from France, making it one of the most remote French overseas territories), New Caledonia is comprised of an archipelago made up of a main island, the Grande Terre, and numerous smaller islands. Ownership of two uninhabited islands, Hunter and Matthew, is disputed by Vanuatu. The population of about 250,000 people is composed of European and indigenous Melanesian (described locally as the Kanak) communities. French is the official language.

Mining and tourism are the islands' two major economic activities. New Caledonia possesses about a quarter of the world's nickel resources, and minerals make up more than 90 per cent of the country's exports. Major trading partners include France, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

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Described as a sui generis collectivity or special collectivity, New Caledonia was granted relative and increasing autonomy under the 1998 Noumea Accord. Key areas such as taxation, labour law and foreign trade are already controlled by the islands' government. Under the accord, the Territorial Congress has the right to call for a referendum on independence at any time between 2014 and 2019. New Caledonians also have the option of choosing a new name for the territory, even if they decline the independence option. While the official name remains in place, the territory has formally adopted a Kanak flag, which joins the French tricolour as its two official flags. …