The peaceful territory of New Caledonia goes to the polls on Sunday for a third and final referendum on independence from France with a campaign marked by angry demands for the cancellation of the vote due to the Covid pandemic.
The territory, some 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) east of Australia, has been cleared for three independence referendums as part of a 1988 agreement to ease tensions over the Group of ‘he is.
After rejecting a break with their former French colonial masters in 2018 and again last year, the 185,000 voters in the territory will be asked one last time: “Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent? “
The vote comes against a backdrop of increasingly strained relations between Paris and its allies in the region.
France considers itself a great Indo-Pacific power thanks to overseas territories such as New Caledonia.
Australia infuriated France in September by abandoning a submarine contract in favor of a security pact with Britain and the United States.
Behind the recent feud looms China’s growing role in the region, with experts suspecting that an independent New Caledonia may be more supportive of Beijing’s advances, which are in part driven by an interest in the territory’s mining industry. .
China is already the first customer for New Caledonian exports of metals, particularly nickel.
China’s “pearl necklace”
“If the French safeguard were to disappear, all the elements would be in place for China to establish itself permanently in New Caledonia,” said Bastien Vandendyck, an international relations analyst specializing in the Pacific.
Other countries in the Melanesia region, which also includes Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, had already become “Chinese satellites,” Vandendyck told AFP.
“All China needs now to finish its pearl necklace at Australia’s doorstep is New Caledonia,” he said.
Independence activists boycott Sunday’s vote, saying they want it postponed to September because “a fair campaign” is not possible amid high numbers of coronavirus infections.
The 270,000 inhabitants of New Caledonia were largely spared from Covid infections during the first phase of the global pandemic, but have suffered nearly 300 Covid deaths since the appearance of the Delta variant in recent months.
The French government rejected the request, saying the spread of the virus had slowed with a relatively modest infection rate of 80 to 100 cases per 100,000 people.
The independence movement has always threatened with non-recognition of the referendum result and pledged to appeal to the United Nations to have it annulled.
French Minister for Overseas Territories Sébastien Lecornu said that while it was “a democratic right” to refuse to vote, the boycott would not change the “legal validity” of the referendum.
‘Declaration of war’
The pro-French camp, for its part, called on its supporters to come out in numbers, fearing that the boycott of the independence parties would push them to stay at home because the victory could seem acquired.
“It is important that the mobilization of non-independence supporters remains absolute, to show that they are in the majority and united in their wish that New Caledonia remains in the French Republic”, declared Thierry Santa, president of the conservative party Rassemblement-LR, written in a letter to the voters.
In June, the various political parties agreed with the French government that Sunday’s referendum, whatever the outcome, should lead to “a period of stability and convergence” and be followed by a new referendum of here June 2023 which would decide the “project” that New Caledonians want. to chase.
But hopes for a smooth transition were shattered when the main indigenous independence movement, the FLNKS, saw the government’s insistence on moving forward with the referendum “as a declaration of war.”
Observers fear that renewed tensions could even trigger a return to the type of violence last seen 30 years ago, before the warring parties reached successive agreements to ensure the group of islands’ peaceful transition.
The pro-Paris camp won the 2018 referendum with 56.7% of the vote, but that percentage fell to 53.3% in the 2020 elections.
The archipelago has been a French territory since 1853.
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