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Indigenous Islanders Urged to Boycott New Caledonia Independence Vote


FILE - Pro-independance demonstrators hold a Kanak flags as they face French riot police during a protest outside the New Caledonian northern province assembly while [French President Jacques Chirac] was paying a visit to the New Caledonian northern city

New Caledonia will hold a referendum on independence from France Sunday. It will be the third and final poll meant to conclude a decolonization process that began in the French overseas territory in the Pacific 30 years ago. Two previous votes, in 2018 and 2020, rejected independence.

Pro-independence groups wanted New Caledonia’s referendum to be delayed to give Indigenous Kanaks, who make up 40% of the population, time to grieve those who have died during the pandemic. Traditional mourning rites last a year. The groups said COVID-19 has disrupted campaigning for the referendum and have called on supporters to boycott the vote.

France, though, has said the referendum will proceed. It has sent about 2,000 police officers to maintain security in its semiautonomous overseas territory.

Denise Fisher is a former senior Australian diplomat in New Caledonia, and a visiting fellow at the Center for European Studies at the Australian National University.

She told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. a boycott by large numbers of voters would be destabilizing.

"We are talking about an agreement -- a referendum under an agreement -- that made pledges to what were defined as a colonized people, and if you have those very people who are specifically recognized under the Nouméa Accord for their cultural identity and their legitimacy -- if they are not going to participate in this third and final vote, especially when the last two were so close, it does undermine at least the political impact of that vote,” said Fisher.

FILE - A general view of the bay of Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia, a French territory in the South Pacific, with the yachting port in the background, May 9, 2018..
FILE - A general view of the bay of Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia, a French territory in the South Pacific, with the yachting port in the background, May 9, 2018..


The 1998 Nouméa Accord followed a decade of deadly conflict in New Caledonia in the 1980s and set out a path for potential independence.

The South Pacific archipelago has the world's seventh-largest nickel reserves. Mining is its major industry, but the territory relies on financial support from Paris. It has a population of around 270,000 people and is 1,500 kilometers east of Australia.

Loyalist groups have argued that maintaining ties to France is vital for the territory’s development.

Analysts have said if New Caledonia does break away, it would further diminish France’s status in the Indo-Pacific at a time that neighboring Australia has boosted its presence in the region with a new security alliance with the United States and Britain.

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