New Caledonia votes in second independence referendum from France
Voting started Sunday in the French South Pacific territory of New Caledonia in an independence referendum, 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.
The agreement ended a deadly conflict between the mostly pro-independence indigenous Kanak population and the descendants of European settlers known as "Caldoches" in the 1980s.
That violence 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.
Since New Caledonia has largely avoided the coronavirus pandemic, 294 polling stations opened at 8:00 am (2100 GMT Saturday) and will close at 6:00 pm (0700 GMT).
Sunday's vote is the second time the tropical archipelago has gone to the polls to decide on its fate in two years. The 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.
By midday Sunday, turnout was at 49 percent according to authorities -- several points higher than at the same stage during the 2018 vote -- with waits of several hours reported at some polling stations in the capital Noumea.
Political observers say a majority "Yes" to independence is unlikely, although there have been no opinion polls to give guidance.
If independence is rejected, there is the option of another referendum by 2022 so long as the poll is requested by at least a third of the local legislature.
"Everyone knows there is going to be no change on Sunday," the government chief Thierry Santa, who favours staying with France, told AFP.
The real issue was to know how much of a lead one side had over the other, he added.
'Future of our children'
Despite the expectations of a "No" vote, opinions in Noumea are divided.
Some see staying with France as the only practical way forward 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," said Carl Leclerc, a manager.
"This choice is 'No', it is simply to stay with France," he added.
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", was seized by France in 1853 and is home to 270,000 inhabitants.
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 accused 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 that 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.
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