French Pacific outpost decides on independence in new poll

Noumea (AFP) –

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The French South Pacific territory of New Caledonia votes in a referendum on independence Sunday, with voters expected to reject breaking away from France after almost 170 years despite rising support for the move.

The referendum is part of a carefully negotiated de-colonisation plan agreed in 1998, known as the Noumea Accord, designed to put an end to a deadly conflict between the mostly pro-independence indigenous Kanak population, and the descendants of European settlers known as "Caldoches".

That violence in the 1980s culminated in a bloody, drawn-out hostage crisis in 1988 that saw 19 separatists killed on one side, and six police and special forces on the other.

With Covid-19 having no impact on the vote as New Caledonia has largely avoided the pandemic, polling stations open at 8:00 am (2100 GMT Saturday) and close at 6:00 pm (0700 GMT).

It will be the second time the tropical archipelago goes to the polls to decide on its fate in two years, after a first referendum in 2018 resulted in the maintenance of the status quo with 56.7 percent of the vote.

But the 2018 result still marked a shift towards pro-independence sympathies, raising campaigners' hopes that this time it could manage to break free.

Political observers say a majority "Yes" to independence is unlikely, although there have been no opinion polls to help provide guidance.

"I would be surprised if the Yes-vote won," said Pierre-Christophe Pantz, a Noumea-based expert in geopolitics.

He said, however, that the gap between both camps could narrow if some of the tens of thousands of voters who abstained last time can be persuaded to join the independence camp.

If independence is rejected, there is the option of another referendum by 2022 so long as the poll is requested by a at least a third of the local legislature.

"Everyone knows there is going to be no change on Sunday," confidently predicted the government chief Thierry Santa, who favours staying with France.

- 'Future of our children' -

Despite the expectations of a 'No' vote, opinions are divided in the capital Noumea.

Some see staying with France as the only practical way forwards while others do not want to lose the chance of full independence.

"I made the choice a long time ago because we want to ensure the future of our children and our future also on the territory," said Carl Leclerc, a manager.

"This choice is 'No', it is simply to stay with France," he said.

But Pierre Gocho, a Kanak, said: "For me it is 'Yes' because we want our country in our hands and to go further than autonomy."

New Caledonia, situated between Australia and Fiji and sometimes called "The Pebble", has 270,000 inhabitants.

It has been French since 1853 and, after Britain's exit from the European Union, is one of the few remaining EU outposts in the region.

The economy's mainstays are the production of metals, especially nickel of which New Caledonia is a major global producer, tourism and financial support from mainland France.

The French government, from more than 16,000 kilometres (10,000 miles) away, subsidises the territory with around 1.5 billion euros ($1.75 billion) every year, the equivalent of more than 15 percent of New Caledonia's gross domestic product.

A special authorisation allowing the French national flag to be used in campaign spots angered the pro-independence Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) which accuses the French government of taking sides against independence.

If New Caledonia votes for independence, France would, after a transition period, hand over control.

The last former colonies to be given independence by France were Djibouti in 1977 and Vanuatu in 1980.

Paris would also stop paying its yearly subsidy, a frightening prospect for the six remainer parties which have formed a loyalist coalition.

"We cannot live without French money," said Gil Brial, the group's campaign director.

But Charles Washetine, spokesman for the Party of Kanak Liberation (Palika), said "our country is mature enough to be completely in charge of its own affairs".

French Prime Minister Jean Castex, whose government must remain scrupulously neutral in the vote, has said he plans to talk to all the main actors in the aftermath of the poll.