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New Caledonia holds tense final vote on independence from France

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
A woman casts her ballot for the referendum on independence at a polling station at City Hall in Noumea, in the French South Pacific territory of New Caledonia, on December 12, 2021. (Photo by AFP]

People in the South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia have taken to the polls to cast their ballots in an independence referendum aimed at breaking away from France, the third and final ballot on the issue amid heightened fears of violence as Paris is determined to maintain its colonialist influence on the tiny island.

Polls opened across the 2,000-kilometer territory in the east of Australia at 7:00 am local time (2000 GMT) on Saturday and will close at 6:00 pm local time (0500 GMT) on Sunday with the results expected a few hours afterward.

The last pro-independence vote is expected to be tight after two previous polls — in 2018 and 2020 — narrowed the "No" vote from 57% to 53%.

The vote comes against the backdrop of increasingly strained ties between France and its regional allies, with Paris regarding itself as a major Indo-Pacific player thanks to overseas territories such as New Caledonia.

The ballots of the territory's 185,000 voters are cast amid fears that a "no" vote would infuriate those who support independence and stoke instability in the tiny island-- one of the five French territories in the Indo-Pacific and the centerpiece of President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to expand French influence in the region.

Macron claimed on Thursday that the French government takes no side in the referendum other than to ensure fair and smooth proceedings, saying, "The day after the vote, whatever the result is, there will be a shared life" between New Caledonia and France.

Since the 1980s, tensions have been simmering in the nickel-rich territory between supporters of independence and those who want to stay French.

Sunday's vote is the third and final prescribed by a deal struck a decade ago after talks on the island’s future began in 1988.

France is one of the world’s colonizing countries, which still controls countries in more than 12 territories and treats their people as second-class citizens following decades of slavery.

Moreover, the vote in New Caledonia has been marked by angry demands to be cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, with the indigenous Kanak population, who largely favor independence, calling for non-participation in the referendum as they are in a 12-month mourning period following September's surge in Delta infections of the coronavirus.

Macron’s government has rejected the demands, saying the virus spread has slowed after the infection rate allegedly fell to a modest 80 to 100 cases per 100,000 people.

New Caledonia's 270,000 inhabitants were largely spared during the pandemic's first phase but have suffered close to 300 COVID-19 deaths since the recent appearance of the Delta variant.

Anti-French sentiments in former colonies have been a source of headache for Macron, the country's first leader born after the colonial era.

The Caribbean territory of Guadeloupe and nearby Martinique have recently been wracked by rioting and strikes that reflect long-running frustrations over inequality with the French mainland.

Late last month, the Nigerian government announced that two people were killed and 18 others wounded in clashes with French troops after the former colonizer’s military convoy heading to neighboring Mali was blocked by protestors angry at the failure of French forces to counter the threat of terrorism in the region.

Anger about France’s military presence in its former colonies has been rising in Niger, Burkina Faso and other countries in West Africa’s Sahel region, where France has thousands of troops on the pretext of fighting affiliates of al-Qaeda and Daesh.

The terrorist groups have strengthened their foothold across the arid Sahel region, making large swathes of territory ungovernable and stoking local ethnic violence, especially in Mali and Burkina Faso.


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