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Macron wraps up New Caledonia visit ahead of independence referendum
President Emmanuel Macron called on the people of New Caledonia not to turn back the tide of history in the final speech of his visit to the French Pacific territory. He repeated a warning against a "new hegemony" in the region, a thinly veiled reference to China, which on Friday hit out at a similar remark during his visit to Australia.
"France would not be the same without New Caledonia," Macron told an audience of local dignitaries at a theatre built on the site of France's former penal colony on the archipelago.
Although he insisted he was not telling local people how to vote in a referendum on independence to be held on 4 November, he made his feelings pretty clear with an appeal not to "turn back the tide of history".
In a nod to the indigenous Kanak people, many of whom have supported a longlasting separatist movement, he acknowledged that New Caledonia has an "often tragic" history.
But France will invest in its future, he promised, pointing to the potential of its nickel reserves and the possibility of a "blue economy" that makes the most of the ocean.
Building an "Indo-Pacific axis" is essential, Macron asserted, "if we don't want the region to fall under a new hegemony".
The remark clearly targeted China, whose economic dominance and territorial claims in the South China Sea worry the Western powers as well as countries in the region.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Friday called a similar statement by Macron in Australia a "groundless accusation" and accused him of turning a blind eye to US "military or economic hegemony of every kind in the region".
Macron's speech in New Caledonia was well-received by local politicians on both sides of the independence debate.
On Friday about 4,000 people demonstrated in favour of remaining part of France, a choice that an opinion poll has shown is likely to win the referendum.
Ceremony at site of siege
Earlier Macron took part in ceremonies to mark the 30th anniversary of the deaths of six French police officers and 19 Kanak rebels who were killed after French troops ended a hostage siege by a separatist group.
He attended a memorial ceremony at a monument to the officers and observed a moment of silence for two nationalist leaders who were murdered by one of their own in May 1989.
But he did not lay a wreath on the tomb of the Kanak victims, following nationalist calls for him not to do so.