New Caledonia to vote in 3rd referendum on whether to remain French

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The South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia will vote in a referendum on Sunday on whether to remain French in an Indo-Pacific region of increasing global importance.

The vote is part of a decades-long process of decolonisation but pro-independence forces have refused to take part.

They had aimed to delay the vote in part due to the COVID-19 crisis which influenced the campaign.

Polls will open at 7:00 am with voters asked to vote yes or no on the question: “Do you want New Caledonia to achieve full sovereignty and become independent?”

The archipelago became French in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III and was used as a prison colony.

But the territory of 270,000 people won broad autonomy after violence in 1988 led to a political process known as the Noumea Agreement.

The accord provides for the “progressive, accompanied and irreversible transfer of powers from the French state to New Caledonia” except for powers over defence, security justice, foreign affairs and currency.

In the first such referendum in 2018, 43.6% of voters supported independence, and 46.7% supported it in the second vote in 2020.

The vote comes as France works to maintain its presence in the region following the AUKUS deal in September that ended a French submarine contract with Australia.

New Caledonia hosts one of two French military bases in the Pacific, which allows France to contribute to regional security.

Even if New Caledonia votes to remain French, the process will not end immediately.

The state, separatists and non-separatists would have 18 months to negotiate a new status for the territory and its institutions within France.

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