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NOUMÉA, New Caledonia (February 28, 2002 - Oceania Flash)---A request for New Caledonia's coral reef, one of the world's largest, to be included in the United Nations World Heritage list has sparked controversy, with local politicians accusing the French Socialist government of relaying the candidacy for "electoral purposes" ahead of crucial general and presidential elections, the French newspaper Le Monde reported on Tuesday.

The request originated with moves from New Caledonia's local environment organizations, including the "Corail Vivant" (Living Coral) association.

Corail Vivant leaders Bruno van Peteghem and Didier Baron welcomed the support from Paris, which materialized when French environment minister Yves Cochet officially filed New Caledonia's bid with the United Nations Education, Social, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The request, now that it is filed, must still undergo the UN's World Heritage classification committee's scrutiny, which could take as long as a year.

But meanwhile, the bid has angered the French territory's right-wing majority party, the RPCR (Rally for New Caledonia within the French Republic) with undertones of nickel mining stakes.

RPCR President Jacques Lafleur said the move was "an electoral ploy" which, he believes, is outright "interference from Paris."

He invoked the autonomy-loaded Nouméa Accord (signed in 1998 with French Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and pro-independence FLNKS then party leader Roch Wamytan), which clearly states that environment matters are to be dealt with by New Caledonia's local territorial authorities and its three provinces (North, South and Loyalty Islands), not France.

Lafleur also asked the French minister to withdraw the candidacy from UNESCO, where it has already been filed.

Van Peteghem reacted to Lafleur's ire by saying the controversy had at least one merit: that of allowing a debate to take place in New Caledonia, including on the environmental impact of nickel mining.

Two major projects are scheduled to be completed in the next few years in New Caledonia, one in the North with Canadian giant Falconbridge, another one in the South with another Canadian partner, Inco.

Environmentalists claim no thorough impact studies have been carried out at either of the proposed mining sites, involving such matters as waste management and possible lagoon pollution.

Inco, however, has pledged attention to environmental concerns, saying it would take every necessary precaution.

New Caledonia's coral reef is about 1,600 kilometers (960 feet) long. It covers an area of about 8,000 square kilometers (3,200 square miles). It ranks second on the world reefs list in size, behind Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

It is also home to what is generally considered as an exceptional variety of fauna and flora species.

Other parties have welcomed the bid to register on UNESCO's list. FLNKS (National Kanak Socialist Liberation Front) political bureau member Sylvain Pabouty said this would be "an honor, since the Kanak people want to preserve their natural environment. Such a label would guarantee a sustainable development policy for our island. This would also boost our tourism destination, which is subject to harsh competition from other Pacific Islands," he said.

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