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.
In Sunday’s referendum, more than 180,000 registered voters will be called upon to answer the question “Do you want New Caledonia to acquire full sovereignty and become independent?”
No opinion poll has been released, but two years ago 56.4% of voters who took part in a similar referendum chose to keep ties with Paris – 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) away and nine time zones schedules – instead of supporting 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 in the independence camp, Rock Wamytan, the 70-year-old president of the Congress of New Caledonia, said: “We have shown that we can run an independent country. For 30 years, we have been preparing and we are ready. “
“We have thousands of young people who can now lead the country with their degrees, skills and experiences,” he said at a recent rally of the FLNKS movement leading the campaign for independence.
For supporters of the “no”, severing ties with the French state is not an option.
The supporters of the political alliance “The Future in Confidence” affirm in their campaign program that “New Caledonia in France is proud to have its own identity, rich in its diversity. We are part of the French nation.
Gil Brial, 46, member of L’Avenir en Confiance and coordinator of the “no” campaign, declared: “we must now show that with our project in the French Republic, our great autonomy, we can develop New Caledonia. “
A more moderate party, Caledonie ensemble (“Caledonia ensemble”), is campaigning for a “no” to independence while insisting on the need to build a “common future”.
Philippe Gomes, a 62-year-old lawmaker and party chairman, said pro and anti-independence supporters should sit around a table to reach consensus.
The coronavirus pandemic has added an extra wrinkle to the vote. New Caledonia has kept its borders almost completely closed, suspending almost all flights, with a few exceptions and a mandatory 14-day quarantine and tests on travelers.
While France is one of the hardest-hit countries in Europe, with around 32,000 confirmed deaths, New Caledonia has not reported any deaths linked to the virus. Local authorities have reported a total of 27 cases of infection, all involving travelers arriving in the archipelago.
To ensure the authenticity of the voting results, 248 delegates from Paris and Wallis, another French island in the Pacific, will be deployed to the polling stations. International observers have also been sent by the United Nations and the Pacific Islands Forum.
The archipelago of New Caledonia became French in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III – Napoleon’s nephew and heir – and was used for decades as a prison colony.
It became an overseas territory after World War II, with French citizenship granted to all Kanaks in 1957. Under French colonial rule, Kanaks faced strict policies of segregation and widespread discrimination .
During his visit to the archipelago in 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged the “pain of colonization” and presented the Caledonian government with a document declaring that the archipelago had become French possession in 1853 – a gesture intended to symbolize the last chapter of the colonization period.
The latest estimates show that Kanaks now make up around 40% of the population, people of European descent around 27% and others are mainly from countries in Asia and the Pacific Islands.
Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.