New Caledonia vote on independence from France sees big turnout
Voters have taken to the polls in large numbers in the South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia for a referendum on whether to break away from France after nearly 170 years.
- A referendum two years ago saw New Caledonia voters reject independence from France
- Independence supporters want to reclaim all sovereign powers from France to New Caledonia
- The Pacific territory has remained COVID-19 free, while France is one of the hardest-hit countries in Europe
Polls opened at 8:00am local time and closed at 6:00pm, with counting now underway.
The vote is key to determining the future of the archipelago and its 270,000 inhabitants including both native Kanaks, who once suffered from strict segregation policies, and descendants of European colonisers.
The referendum also coincides with geopolitical reconfiguration in the Pacific, where China is expanding its influence at the expense of traditional Western players.
More than 180,000 registered voters were asked to answer the question: “Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?”
As of late on Sunday, the estimated turnout was 79.63 per cent, according to the Office of the High Commissioner of the Republic in New Caledonia.
No opinion polls have been released, but two years ago, 56.4 per cent of voters who participated in a similar referendum chose to keep ties with Paris — 16,000 kilometres and nine times zones away — instead of backing independence.
Both referendums are the final steps of a long process that started 30 years ago after years of violence that pitched pro-independence Kanak activists against those willing to remain with France.
A peace deal between rival factions was achieved in 1988.
The Noumea Accord issued by the French Government in 1998 gave additional autonomy to the territory and said it could have, at most, three referenda on its independence from France.
If voters choose independence in 2020, an unspecified transition period will open so that the archipelago can get ready for its future status.
Otherwise, New Caledonia will remain a French territory — and therefore part of the European Union — with its residents keeping French citizenship.
The vote was long-planned and is focused on local issues, but comes at a time when the legacy of colonialism is under new scrutiny globally after protests in recent months against racial injustice inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement in the US.
Independence activists campaigning for the “yes” vote want all sovereign powers, including justice, police, the military, currency and foreign relations, to be transferred from France to New Caledonia.
For “no” supporters, breaking ties with the French state is not an option.
The coronavirus pandemic has added an extra wrinkle to the vote.
New Caledonia has kept its borders almost completely closed, suspending nearly all flights, with only a few exceptions and a mandatory 14-day quarantine and testing on travellers.
While France is one of Europe’s hardest-hit countries, with around 32,000 confirmed deaths, New Caledonia has reported no virus-related deaths.