24 Jul 2003

French president seeks dialogue in New Caledonia, faces protests

3:22 pm on 24 July 2003

New Caledonia's mainly Kanak USTKE union has decided to remain on strike for the duration of the French president, Jacques Chirac's visit in the territory.

After yesterday's union-led rally of two-thousand people, the union held a fresh meeting today and said it would hold a barbecue outside the French high commission.

The president who arrived in Noumea yesterday will stay until Saturday.

While the union has a range a grievances, President Chirac has told an estimated 15-thousand people in Noumea that he hopes France and New Caledonia can work together hand in hand in determining the territory's future.

Mr Chirac's speech made no mention of a key clause in the 1998 Noumea accord on greater autonomy which provides for a freeze of the electorate to ensure Kanaks will not be outnumbered by French migrants in future votes.

The clause has not been implemented because the constitution has not changed accordingly.

At a separate meeting in Noumea, Mr Chirac took issue with New Caledonia census questions about ethnicity, saying they were irresponsible and illegal.

He says the the idea of including references to ethnic origins in an official document is outrageous, adding that the French republic does not recognise people based on their ethnic origins.