The French Pacific Islands of New Caledonia are voting on Sunday to decide whether they want to become an independent nation in a closely watched test of France's support in one of its many areas scattered around the world.
Located about 18,000 kilometers from the French mainland, New Caledonia is home to a quarter of the world's known nickel reserves – an important component of electronics – and is a strategic foundation for France in the Pacific.
On the remote islands, bordered by spectacular beaches, around 175,000 people are eligible to vote, with opinion polls predicting a large majority to remain in France.
However, there are fears that the referendum may lead to tensions between the indigenous Kanak people who favor independence and the white population who turned to lethal violence in the 1980s.
The quasi-civil war claimed more than 70 lives. This led to the agreement of Noumea (1998), which paved the way for the steady division of powers and referendum on Sunday.
On Friday, separatist activists drove in a convoy of about 20 cars along the Noumea waterfront and waved the Kanak flag to "Kanaky" – their name for New Caledonia.
Separatists have asked Kanak voters to opt for self-determination and to shed the shackles of "colonial" authorities in Paris.
But fewer than 50 percent of voters are indigenous peoples, and some Kanaks remain part of France, not least because of the 1.3 billion euros the French state spends each year on the islands.
"I'm not sure we have all the assets we need to be successful," said Marc Gnipate, a 62-year-old retiree.
According to surveys, 63 to 75 percent of voters will decide against a secession from France, which claimed the islands in 1853 and once used them as a penal colony.
According to the 1998 deal, two further independence referendums may be held before 2022 in the event of a no-strike.
– Balancing China in the Pacific? –
French President Emmanuel Macron will give a televised address on Sunday after the results at 1200 GMT (23.00 Noumea time).
He has largely avoided the campaign, but during a visit to Noumea in May, stated that "France would be less beautiful without New Caledonia."
Macron also expressed concerns about the increasing Chinese influence in the Pacific, where Beijing has invested heavily in Vanuatu, an area that broke out in 1980 from France and the United Kingdom.
Macron accuses the US of turning its back on the region in recent months and said China is building its "hegemony step by step" in the Pacific – an independent New Caledonia could take Beijing's next footstep.
Australia has also expressed concern over China's activities in neighboring island states – the estimates of the Lowy Institute's think tank amounted to $ 1.78 billion from Beijing in 2006-16 in response to its own spending.
While Australia remains officially neutral on the independence of New Caledonia, Canberra's former Consul General in Noumea Denise Fisher said France's stability in the Pacific is estimated in light of China's rise.
"It has been fortunate for Australia to have a well-developed western ally such as France in the region, especially at a time when there is a major geostrategic change and new players like China are coming to the region," she told the ABC ,
"There are a few uncertainties now."
With 269,000 inhabitants, New Caledonia is one of the few French outposts of the island – a legacy of the 19th century empire – which retains its strategic importance.
The referendum will be a test of the attractiveness of the remainder of France for those remote areas that are heavily dependent on state handouts, but in which many in Paris see themselves as overlooked.
Both French Guiana in South America and the Mayotte archipelago in the Indian Ocean have been shaken by major protests against living standards since last year and perceived as neglected.
In New Caledonia, there are fears that the vote could expose tensions over the major inequalities that exist despite the government's efforts to restore economic equilibrium in favor of Kanaks.
"In Noumea people earn a salary, but in the tribes, nobody earns a salary or any money income," said Kanak activist Elie Poigoune.
The Kanak community is plagued by high school dropouts, chronic unemployment and poor housing.
Gangs of delinquent youth have become more common on the street, and both sides fear violence between them when the "no" vote is correct.
Surveys suggest that activists who are independent are disappointed with the results of the referendum on Sunday
The indigenous people of Kanak make up less than half the population of New Caledonia
New Caledonia, where a referendum on independence will be held on Sunday
New Caledonia is French since 1853