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France

New Caledonia votes on independence from France

  • Most people living in French colony say they want to keep being ruled by Paris, although some fear vote could widen divisions and lead to unrest
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 November, 2018, 11:41pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 November, 2018, 11:41pm

The French Pacific islands of New Caledonia vote on Sunday on whether to become an independent nation, in a closely-watched test of support for France in one of its many territories scattered around the globe.

Some 18,000km (11,000 miles) from the French mainland, New Caledonia is home to a quarter of the world’s known supplies of nickel – a vital electronics component – and is a strategic foothold for France in the Pacific.

Some 175,000 people are eligible to vote in the remote islands fringed by spectacular beaches, with opinion polls predicting a large majority in favour of remaining a colony.

But there are fears the referendum could inflame tensions between indigenous Kanak people, who tend to favour independence, and the white population, which boiled over into deadly violence in the 1980s.

The quasi-civil war claimed more than 70 lives. It led to the 1998 Noumea Accord which paved the way for the steady devolution of powers as well as Sunday’s referendum.

On Friday, separatist activists drove along Noumea’s waterfront in a convoy of around 20 cars, waving the Kanak flag to cries of “Kanaky” – their name for New Caledonia.

Separatists have urged Kanak voters to choose self-determination, throwing off the shackles of the colonial authorities in Paris.

Indigenous people make up less than 50 per cent of the electorate and some Kanaks back staying part of France, not least due to the 1.3 billion (US$1.5 billion) the French state hands to the islands every year.

“I’m not sure we have all the assets we’d need to succeed [if independent],” said Marc Gnipate, a 62-

year-old pensioner.

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Polls suggest 63 to 75 per cent will vote against breaking away from France, which claimed the islands in 1853 and once used them as a penal colony.

Under the 1998 deal, in the event of a “no” vote two further referendums on independence can still be held before 2022.

French President Emmanuel Macron is set to give a televised address after the results at 1200 GMT (11pm Noumea time) on Sunday.

He has largely stayed clear of the campaign, but declared during a visit to Noumea in May that “France would be less beautiful without New Caledonia”.

Macron also raised concerns about increasing Chinese influence in the Pacific, where Beijing has invested heavily in Vanuatu, a territory which broke from France and Britain in 1980.

Accusing the US of “turning its back on the region in recent months”, Macron insisted China was “building its hegemony step by step” in the Pacific – suggesting an independent New Caledonia could provide Beijing with its next foothold.

Home to 269,000 people, New Caledonia is one of a handful of French colonies – a legacy of the country’s 19th-century empire – which retain strategic importance.

The referendum will be a test of the appeal of remaining part of France for such far-flung territories, which are heavily dependent on state handouts but where many feel overlooked by Paris.

Both French Guiana in South America and the Indian Ocean archipelago of Mayotte have been rocked since last year by major protests over living standards and perceived neglect.

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In New Caledonia, there are fears that the vote could expose tensions over stark inequalities which persist despite government efforts to redress the economic balance in favour of Kanaks.

“In Noumea people earn a salary, but in the tribes no one earns a salary or any kind of monetary income,” said veteran Kanak activist Elie Poigoune.

The Kanak community is plagued by high school dropout rates, chronic unemployment and poor housing conditions.

Gangs of delinquent youths have become increasingly common on the streets and both sides fear violence among them if the “no” vote prevails.