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By Patrick Antoine Decloitre

SUVA, Fiji (Oceania Flash, July 26) – New Caledonia's political leaders see last week's visit by a Pacific Island Forum ministerial delegation as a significant warming of relations between the French Pacific territory and the Pacific region.

Top leaders in New Caledonia, after talks during most of last week with the Forum delegation - which was there as apart of an ongoing monitoring process of the autonomy Nouméa Accord - have felt relations with the Pacific Islands Forum were undergoing positive change.

The Accord, which paves the way for gradual transfer of powers from metropolitan France to local authorities and sets a timeframe for a possible independence referendum (between 2013 and 2018) was signed in 1998 between the French government, pro-independence FLNKS party and anti-independence Rassemblement RPCR.

On the part of the Forum, members of the delegations have encouraged New Caledonia to further engage with their neighbouring countries.

Since last year, as part of ongoing reforms contained in its new Pacific Plan, the Forum has signaled a change in policy towards the non-sovereign Pacific countries and territories, mostly French and American.

This involved a more open arms approach and could lead, in the coming months, to the creation of a new intermediate status within the regional organisation, in-between the observer status and the full member status, diplomatic sources said.

Currently, New Caledonia and French Polynesia are simple observers within the Forum.

Fiji's foreign affairs minister Kaliopate Tavola, who was part of last week's three-minister mission in New Caledonia, was reported in the local media as saying provisions in the Nouméa Accord that imposed a multi-party government seemed to be working and that the autonomy pact, which provides a sort of roadmap for New Caledonia's future, had the merit of providing a common path for the territory's population.

The Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat's legal department is understood to be currently considering ways to introduce a new "associate" membership category which could be submitted to the next Pacific Islands Forum leaders' summit scheduled to take place in Port-Moresby (Papua New Guinea) mid-October.

Other ways to better integrate New Caledonia and more generally non-sovereign countries and territories, could also materialise through the endorsement of the Pacific Island Countries free Trade Agreement (PICTA), which came into force in 2003 between 14 of the 16 Forum member countries.

New Caledonia's Congress (Parliament) has already endorsed, on principle, its engagement into negotiations with a view to join the trade deal.

Still on PICTA, the said, a trade-dedicated Forum mission is also scheduled to visit New Caledonia sometime in the second half of August.

During their seven-day visit, the Forum delegation members have met a wide range of officials and leaders on the local political, economic, social and non-state scene.

These include French High Commissioner Daniel Constantin, local government President Marie-Noëlle Thémereau, several of her cabinet members, Presidents of the three Provinces (North, South and Loyalty Islands), the Economic and Social Council, the Chamber of Commerce and the local equivalent to a Great Council of Chiefs, which is called the Customary Senate.

Speaking to local media after talks with the Forum delegation last week, New Caledonia's President Marie-Noëlle Thémereau said her perception was that the Forum ministers (including Fiji's foreign affairs minister Kaliopate Tavola) wish that New Caledonia « participates more in (Pacific level) discussions, to the exchanges, that it should be more integrated, in a nutshell they wish us to become part of the Pacific family ».

July 27, 2005

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