LAFLEUR RETIRES FROM NEW CALEDONIA POLITICS

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NOUMEA, New Caledonia (Oceania Flash, Dec. 28) – Prominent New Caledonia anti-independence politician, Jacques Lafleur, said he plans to end his 25-year career in politics.

Lafleur, 70, a member of the French National Assembly and President of New Caledonia’s affluent Southern province, founded the RPCR in 1977.

After a spate of civil unrest in the early 1980s, Lafleur and FLNKS (Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front) leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou signed the "Matignon Accords" in 1988.

The accords were fostered by then French Socialist Prime Minister Michel Rocard.

They stressed the need for a better balance between New Caledonia's North and South and paved the way for an autonomy process for the French Pacific territory.

New Caledonia’s three provinces (North, South and Loyalty Islands) were also created as part of the agreement's direct implementation.

In 1989, Tjibaou was murdered by hard-liners within his own movement.

The same year, Lafleur also sold his nickel mining interests in the Northern province to the newly-created financial arm of the Northern province.

In 1998, a successor agreement to the Matignon accords, called the "Nouméa Accord", was signed between Lafleur and Tjibaou's successor, Roch Wamytan.

The date for a possible independence referendum in New Caledonia was also envisaged between 2013 and 2018.

The Nouméa accord further outlined the autonomy process, through the setting up of a territorial government.

In a 30-page written statement released on Friday, Lafleur said the time had come for him to leave the place to a yet unnamed successor at the helm of the anti-independence movement.

"I am not severing ties ... I will never be really far away," he said.

Lafleur does not specify what time his political retirement would effectively take effect.

In September 2000, Lafleur made a similar announcement, but was urged by RPCR supporters to reconsider.

A controversial character in New Caledonia's political life, Lafleur's leadership in the French territory has been increasingly contested in past months.

Opposition parties had criticized his leadership style, including the way the Southern Province had "given away" nickel mining rights to Canadian giant Inco on the Goro site (South of the main island) and granted further prospecting rights in nearby Prony.

Earlier this month, Inco announced it had put the Goro project on hold, pending a comprehensive review of the costs related (currently estimated to around two billion US dollars).

At the French general elections in June 2002, Lafleur retained his seat as New Caledonia's representative (the other being current territorial President Pierre Frogier, also from RPCR) but for the first time was not elected with an absolute majority.

One of Lafleur's likely successors, analysts suggest, could be Frogier.

Earlier this month, French Minister for Overseas Territories, Brigitte Girardin, while on a three-day official visit in New Caledonia, paid homage to Lafleur, asking him not to go.

Pro-independence FLNKS movement spokesman Victor Tutugoro reacted to the announcement saying this was "not a surprise."

Tutugoro said that of all of the original parties to the Matignon Accords (Tjibaou, Rocard and Lafleur), the third physical signatory has now gone. "It's a new chapter and it's up to us, the heirs of the great three men, to carry on the work that has been initiated by their signatures," he said.

Under the Accord's monitoring mechanism, a committee of its signatories is to meet on a regular basis to review its implementation.

During her visit in New Caledonia last week, Girardin called on all parties to the accord to use this follow-up committee to openly bring difficulties and grievances into the open, instead of not voicing them.

FLNKS is to hold its 23rd annual congress on February 1.

It has since last year been critical of the Nouméa Accord's implementation, saying the spirit of "collegiality" (power sharing) enshrined in it had "drifted".

FLNKS had also criticized what is calls lack of consultation on the part of RPCR, which hold a majority in both the Congress and territorial government.

December 30, 2002

Oceania Flash

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