The French territory of New Caledonia, on the Pacific Ocean, is experiencing a third and final referendum for the independence of Paris this weekend, after a campaign marked by demands for the process to be suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In New Caledonia, about 2,000 kilometers east of Australia, 307 polling stations open at 7:00 a.m. (5:00 p.m. EDT) on Sunday and close at 7:00 p.m. (2:00 p.m. EDT on Sunday). It is expected that the first results will be presented a few hours after the closure.
It is the third referendum in the archipelago since the 1988 Matignon Accords, which sought a way out of the crisis in the region.
After rejecting a break with the metropolis on two occasions, New Caledonia’s 185,000 residents have to answer the question: Do you want New Caledonia to achieve its full sovereignty and be independent?
In Noumea, the lines for the opening of squares quickly disappeared, crowding voters. Officials deployed a security device with 2,000 agents on the island.
The appearance is “a stimulus for young people,” residents of St. Louis, an indigenous tribe on the outskirts of Noumea who experienced dire incidents in the first referendum, told AFP.
The consultation comes at a time of high tension between France and its allies in the Pacific. Paris seeks to continue to play a relevant role there, thanks to its overseas territories, including New Caledonia.
French President Emmanuel Macron has insisted that Paris does not take sides in the referendum and has promised “a normal life” between France and New Caledonia regardless of the outcome.
In September France criticized Australia for breaking a submarine purchase contract between the two countries, in favor of a security deal with the United Kingdom and the United States.
Behind this dispute is China’s role in the region. Analysts suspect an independent New Caledonia may move closer to China, which intends to invest in exploration of the archipelago’s natural resources.
Beijing is already New Caledonia’s largest export customer for metals, especially nickel.
Chinese ‘Pearl Necklace’
“With the end of French patronage, all the elements are in place for China to establish itself permanently in New Caledonia”, says Bastien Vandendic, an international relations analyst specializing in the Pacific.
Vandendic believes that other nations in the Melanesia region, such as Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea are already “Chinese satellites”.
“For China to complete its ‘necklace of pearls’ around Australia, only New Caledonia is missing,” the expert says.
Independence supporters have called for a boycott and postponement of Sunday’s vote because the risks of the coronavirus pandemic have not led to a “fair campaign” and threatened not to recognize the referendum’s results.
“This referendum doesn’t make much sense because half the population has decided not to vote. I came out of civic sense,” said Cathy, a bookseller waiting to vote for Noumea.
Defenders of stability as a territory of France called for mass mobilization in opposition to the boycott of independence, to prevent their projected victory from being tarnished by low participation.
In the last referendum, in 2018, supporters of permanence as a French territory won with 56.7% of the vote, but their support percentage dropped to 53.3% in the 2020 local elections.
In June, various political camps agreed with the French government that, in addition to Sunday’s outcome, the period starting now should be one of “stability and convergence”, and a new referendum in June 2023 to decide the future. Should be. Project of New Caledonia”.