MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Queues formed in polling stations in New Caledonia on Sunday when the French archipelago in the South Pacific voted whether to become the newest state in the world, a referendum resulting from a 30-year decolonization process.
It is the first decision of self-determination that has taken place in France since Djibouti voted in favor of independence in the Horn of Africa in 1977. The tensions between the autonomous native Kanaks and the descendants of colonial settlers who remain loyal to Paris are long.
Voters were asked the question: "Would you like New Caledonia to get full sovereignty and become independent?"
A "yes" would not only affect the pride of France, which was once a colonial power whose reach spanned the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific Ocean; it would be Paris in the Indian-Pacific region where China is expanding. no longer give his footing
Australian television showed how people were queued in front of polling stations. Turnout at noon reached nearly 42 percent, according to the Office of the High Commissioner in the capital Noumea.
Around 175,000 of the 280,000 people living in the archipelago are entitled to vote. The polls show earlier this week that the islands are expected to remain a French territory.
Posters called for a no and said, "France is the only chance," while pro-independence advocates called for "a multicultural, solidary, peaceful nation."
During a visit to the archipelago in May, French President Emmanuel Macron confirmed the "pains of colonization" and welcomed the "worthy" campaign for Kanak-led autonomy. He and his government have tried to neutralize the vote.
The economy in New Caledonia relies on French annual subsidies of around € 1.3 billion (US $ 1.48 billion), nickel deposits, which are estimated to make up 25 percent of the world's volume, and tourism.
It has a high degree of autonomy, but it depends heavily on France, such as defense and education.
The New Caledonia Archipelago was first discovered by British explorer James Cook and lies more than 16,700 km from France. It became a French colony in 1853.
Under colonial rule, the Kanaks were limited to reserves and excluded from much of the island's economy. The first uprising broke out in 1878, not long after the discovery of large nickel deposits exploited today by French Miner subsidiary Eramet SLN.
More than 100 years later, in the mid-1980s, there was a struggle between proponents of independence and those who wanted to remain French while anger over poverty and poor job opportunities prevailed.
A 1988 massacre in a cave on Ouvea island killed 19 indigenous separatists and two French soldiers and intensified the island's future. A 1998 deal called for a referendum on independence to be held by the end of 2018.
Under the agreement, two further votes can be held before 2022 in case of non-voting.
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Writing by Richard Lough in Paris and Lidia Kelly in Melbourne; Editing by Geert De Clercq and Kim Coghill