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<span class="t-location">Nouméa (AFP) - </span>Le territoire pacifique de la Nouvelle-Calédonie se rend dimanche aux urnes pour un troisième et dernier référendum sur l'indépendance de la France avec une campagne marquée par la colère des demandes d'annulation du vote en raison de la pandémie de Covid. </p><div> <p>Le territoire, à quelque 2 000 kilomètres (1 250 miles) à l'est de l'Australie, a été autorisé à trois référendums sur l'indépendance dans le cadre d'un accord de 1988 visant à apaiser les tensions sur le groupe d'îles.
After rejecting a break with their former French colonial masters in 2018 and again last year, the 185,000 voters in the territory will be asked one last time: “Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent? “
The vote comes against a backdrop of increasingly strained relations between Paris and its allies in the region.
France considers itself a great Indo-Pacific power thanks to overseas territories such as New Caledonia.
Australia infuriated France in September by abandoning a submarine contract in favor of a security pact with Britain and the United States.
Behind the recent conflict looms China’s growing role in the region, with experts suspecting that an independent New Caledonia might be more supportive of Beijing’s advances, which are in part driven by an interest in the territory’s mining industry. .
China is already the first customer for New Caledonian exports of metals, particularly nickel.
China’s “pearl necklace”
“If the French safeguard were to disappear, all the elements would be in place for China to establish itself permanently in New Caledonia,” said Bastien Vandendyck, an international relations analyst specializing in the Pacific.
Other countries in the Melanesia region, which also includes Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, had already become “Chinese satellites,” Vandendyck told AFP.
“All China needs now to complete its pearl necklace on Australia’s doorstep is New Caledonia,” he said.
Independence activists boycott Sunday’s vote, saying they want it postponed until September because “a fair campaign” is not possible amid high numbers of coronavirus infections.
</div>Les 270 000 habitants de la Nouvelle-Calédonie ont été largement épargnés par les infections au Covid lors de la première phase de la pandémie mondiale, mais ont subi près de 300 décès au Covid depuis l'apparition de la variante Delta ces derniers mois.
The French government rejected the request, saying the spread of the virus had slowed with a relatively modest infection rate of 80 to 100 cases per 100,000 people.
The independence movement has always threatened with non-recognition of the referendum result and pledged to appeal to the United Nations to have it annulled.
The French Minister for Overseas Territories, Sébastien Lecornu, said that if it were a “democratic right” to refuse to vote, the boycott would not change the “legal validity” of the referendum.
‘Declaration of war’
The pro-French camp, for its part, called on its supporters to come out in numbers, fearing that the boycott of the pro-independence parties would push them to stay at home because the victory could seem acquired.
“It is important that the mobilization of supporters of non-independence remains absolute, to show that they are in the majority and united in their wish that New Caledonia remains in the French Republic”, declared Thierry Santa, president of the Conservative Assembly. . LR party, wrote in a letter to voters.
</div>En juin, les différentes formations politiques ont convenu avec le gouvernement français que le référendum de dimanche, quelle qu'en soit l'issue, devait déboucher sur « une période de stabilité et de convergence » et être suivi d'un nouveau référendum d'ici juin 2023 qui déciderait du « projet » qui Les gens de la Nouvelle-Calédonie veulent poursuivre.
But hopes for a smooth transition were shaken when the main indigenous independence movement, the FLNKS, deemed the government’s insistence on moving forward with the referendum “a declaration of war”.
Observers fear that renewed tensions could even trigger a return to the type of violence last seen 30 years ago, before the warring parties reached successive agreements to ensure the group of islands’ peaceful transition.
The pro-Paris camp won the 2018 referendum with 56.7% of the vote, but that percentage fell to 53.3% in the 2020 elections.
The archipelago has been a French territory since 1853.
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