NOUMEA, New Caledonia — French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday starts a highly symbolic visit to New Caledonia, a French territory in the South Pacific that is getting ready to vote on its independence — the last step in a three-decade-long decolonization process.
Macron's visit comes just six months ahead of a self-determination referendum in which voters will answer the question "Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?"
Observers say that, based on electoral results and recent polls, the people are likely to vote to remain in France.
During his visit, Macron will hand the Caledonian government the document that stated the archipelago became a French possession in 1853.
The gesture is supposed to symbolize the final chapter in the period of colonization. A long self-determination process will lead New Caledonians to "freely choose their destiny" on Nov. 4, the president's office said.
New Caledonia, an archipelago east of Australia, counts about 270,000 inhabitants including the native Kanaks, who represent about 40 percent of the population, and people of European descent. It enjoys a large degree of autonomy.
The president's office said Macron will not express a position on the referendum. He will focus on "gestures of commemoration and remembrance" instead.
Macron will attend ceremonies Saturday marking the 30th anniversary of when Kanak tribesmen took French police hostage on Ouvea island. Four gendarmes and 19 hostage-takers died.
He will be the first French president to attend the ceremonies on the island. He wants to "honor the dead, the families and praise the gestures of reconciliation" that have taken place since then, his office said.
The events on Ouvea prompted a 1988 agreement between rival loyalist and pro-independence factions.
The president's office said the visit has been carefully prepared through exchanges with traditional chiefs about this sensitive part of the trip.
Local Damoume and Weneguei chiefs called on the population to welcome Macron. "Today opens a new chapter, we must move forward and look into a serene future", they said in a statement.
Yet the president's presence on the island has also prompted criticism.
A local group rejects Macron's visit to the monument paying tribute to the Kanaks who died. "May 5 is our day of mourning", the Gossanah collective said in a statement. "Thirty years, it's yesterday ... Deep wounds won't disappear in one week."
The visit also has been criticized by some in the loyalist camp who consider the presidential schedule tends to favor the pro-independence partisans. The Caledonian Republicans party called on a march Friday in Noumea, the capital of the territory, "to show the majority of New Caledonians' desire to remain in France is real."
Macron, just arrived from Australia, starts his visit Thursday with a dinner with political leaders.
On Friday he will visit a high school in a northern district of the main island then head back to Noumea to meet with inhabitants, local associations and police forces.
He will also have dinner with the members of the Pacific Community Conference.
Macron' speech on the final day of his visit will get a lot of attention. The 40-year-old leader, who qualified the colonization of "crime against humanity" during the presidential campaign, is expected to stress the "historic nature" of 2018, with the archipelago's future at stake.
It's the first time a self-determination referendum has been organized on a French territory since Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, voted for independence in 1977.
The Indian Ocean island of Mayotte, which chose to remain French in the 1970s, voted to become an oversea department in a 2009 referendum —reinforcing its links to France's mainland.