French Pacific outpost decides on independence

The French South Pacific territory of New Caledonia votes in a referendum on independence on Sunday, with voters expected to reject breaking away from France after almost 170 years despite rising support for the move.

The referendum is part of a carefully negotiated de-colonisation plan agreed in 1998, known as the Noumea Accord, designed to put an end to a deadly conflict between the mostly pro-independence indigenous Kanak population, and the descendants of European settlers known as “Caldoches”.

Violence in the 1980s culminated in a drawn-out hostage crisis in 1988 that saw 19 separatists killed on one side, and six police and special forces on the other.

It will be the second time the archipelago goes to the polls to decide on its fate in two years, after a first referendum in 2018 resulted in status quo with 56.7% of the vote. But the result still marked a shift towards pro-independence sympathies, raising campaigners’ hopes that this time it could manage to break free.

Political observers say a majority “Yes” to independence is unlikely, although there have been no opinion polls to help provide guidance. “I would be surprised if the Yes-vote won,” said Pierre-Christophe Pantz, a Noumea-based expert in geopolitics.

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