New Caledonia president Cynthia Ligeard is hopeful the territory’s future referendum on possible independence from France won’t be marred by violence.
New Caledonia’s new president is hopeful the territory can have a referendum on the fate of its French connection without reliving past bloodshed.
Cynthia Ligeard, 51, became the territory’s second female president late last week and is cautiously optimistic the prospects are good for a peaceful independence referendum, due in the next five years.
A decolonisation push in the 1980s by the Melanesian Kanaks was met with resistance from the French, sparking a civil war which claimed an estimated 70 lives.
Ms Ligeard, who supports New Caledonia remaining a special part of France, said on Sunday people’s strong memories of those dark days were a powerful motivator for a non-violent process.
But there are no guarantees.
“The threat of extremism is still there and that is something we need to keep an eye on,” she told AAP in Noumea.
Economic and social reform are a high on Ms Ligeard’s agenda for her term in office.
A former tourism board head, she’s keen to increase airline access and boost traveller numbers with a particular focus on Australians.
Last week, Aircalin started a new Noumea to Melbourne flight route, building on its current Sydney and Brisbane services.
“Tourism is the next way to develop the economy of New Caledonia besides nickel and aqua culture,” Ms Ligeard said, adding that a presidential visit to Australia was on the cards for next year.
Australia is New Caledonia’s second biggest trading partner.
She wants the scourge of domestic violence tackled and hopes her leadership as a woman can play a part in driving cultural change.
In July, she’ll attend the Pacific Island Forum in Palau for official talks with other nations in the region – the majority of which struggle with female representation in politics.
Vanuatu, Palau and Micronesia have no female politicians.
But upcoming elections in the Cook Islands, Fiji, Tonga, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands provide some scope for improvement, she said.
“The more woman see other women in power the more they will be encouraged to study, to get educated, get a job and be part of society,” she said.
On her home turf, Ms Ligeard believes there is a sense of gender blindness in New Caledonian politics.
“The men in the political sphere don’t really see me like a woman but a politician,” she said.
Unlike Australia’s first female prime minister Julia Gillard, Ms Ligeard said she hasn’t encountered sexism or misogyny in her political career.
“Maybe I’m not conscious of that, which is probably a good thing,” she said.
“They never behave like that in front of me, I think they won’t dare.”