Sunday’s vote is critical in determining the future of the archipelago in eastern Australia and its 270,000 inhabitants, including both Kanaks, who once suffered from strict segregation policies, and descendants of European colonizers.
The vote was long planned and focuses on local issues, but comes at a time when the legacy of colonialism is under renewed scrutiny globally after protests against injustice in recent months racial inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.
During Sunday’s referendum, more than 180,000 registered voters will be invited to answer the question “Do you want New Caledonia to acquire full sovereignty and become independent?” ”
No opinion poll has been published, but two years ago 56.4% of voters who took part in a similar referendum chose to keep ties with Paris – 10,000 miles and nine time zones away – instead to support independence.
The two referendums are the last stages of a long process that began 30 years ago after years of violence pitting Kanak independence activists against those who wanted to stay in France.
A peace accord between rival factions was concluded in 1988. A decade later, the Noumea Accord granted New Caledonia political power and broad autonomy and provided for the organization of three successive referendums.
If voters choose independence on Sunday, an unspecified transition period will open for the archipelago to prepare for its future status.
Otherwise, New Caledonia will remain a French territory – and therefore part of the European Union – with its residents retaining French nationality.
Independence activists campaigning for ‘yes’ want all sovereign powers, including justice, police, army, currency and foreign relations, transferred from France to New Caledonia .
A leading figure from the independence camp, Rock Wamytan, the 70-year-old president of the Congress of New Caledonia, said: Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.