Inhabitants of the region, situated in the heart of the Pacific, are going to the polls for a referendum to choose whether to break away from Paris.
France’s nickel-rich Pacific territory of New Caledonia voted on Sunday in a third and final referendum on independence — with some of those wanting to break free demanding a boycott because they say the Covid pandemic is preventing a fair ballot.
The territory of about 185,000 voters, 2,000 kilometres (1,250 miles) east of Australia, was granted three independence referendums under a 1988 deal aimed at easing tensions on the islands.
Having rejected a breakaway from France in 2018 and then again last year, the inhabitants are being asked one last time: “Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?”
The vote comes against the backdrop of increasingly strained ties between Paris and its regional allies.
France regards itself as a major Indo-Pacific player thanks to overseas territories such as New Caledonia.
President Emmanuel Macron has insisted the French state takes no side in the referendum, other than to ensure fair and smooth proceedings.
Pacific power Australia infuriated France in September by ditching a massive submarine contract in favour of a security pact with Britain and the United States.
What is at stake?
Behind the spat looms China’s growing role, with experts suspecting that an independent New Caledonia could be more amenable to Beijing’s advances, which are partly motivated by an interest in the territory’s vast nickel reserves.
China is already the biggest single client for New Caledonia’s metal exports.
New Caledonia, France’s one of the biggest overseas territory, is a key strategic asset in the contest between the West and China for power in the Indo-Pacific with about 10 percent of the world’s nickel.
“If the French safeguard disappears, all elements would be in place for China to establish itself permanently in New Caledonia,” said international relations analyst Bastien Vandendyck.
Other nations in the region, including Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, had already become “Chinese satellites”, Vandendyck told AFP.
“All China needs now is to complete its pearl necklace on Australia’s doorstep in New Caledonia,” he said.
Tensions are high
Pro-independence campaigners are boycotting the vote, saying they want it postponed to September because “a fair campaign” is not possible with high coronavirus infection numbers.
“I don’t want to go and vote because I don’t agree with this final poll,” said Jean-Pierre Wadra, a resident of the capital Noumea.
New Caledonia’s 270,000 inhabitants were largely spared during the pandemic’s first phase, but have suffered close to 300 Covid-19 deaths since the recent appearance of the Delta variant.
The pro-independence movement has still threatened non-recognition of the referendum outcome and vowed to appeal to the United Nations to have it canceled.
The French minister in charge of overseas territories, Sebastien Lecornu, said that while it was “a democratic right” to refuse to vote, the boycott would make no difference to the referendum’s “legal validity”.
The pro-French camp, meanwhile, has called on supporters to turn out, fearing the boycott by pro-independence parties may prompt them to stay at home with victory looking like a foregone conclusion.
“It is important that the mobilisation of the no-independence supporters remains absolute, to show that they are in a majority and united in their wish for New Caledonia to remain part of the French republic,” said Thierry Santa, president of the conservative Rassemblement-LR party.
In June, the various political parties agreed with the French government that the referendum, whatever its outcome, should lead to “a period of stability and convergence” and be followed by a new referendum by June 2023 which would decide on the “project” New Caledonia’s people want to pursue.
But hopes for a smooth transition were jolted when the main indigenous pro-independence movement, the FLNKS, deemed the government’s insistence on going ahead with the referendum “a declaration of war”.
Observers fear renewed tensions could even spark a return of the kind of violence last seen 30 years ago.
The pro-Paris side won the 2018 referendum with 56.7 percent of the vote, but that fell to 53.3 percent in the 2020 election.