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New Caledonia to hold tense final vote on independence from France this Sunday

The Pacific territory of New Caledonia goes to the polls at the weekend for a third and final referendum on independence from France with campaigning marked by angry demands to call off the vote because of the Covid pandemic.

Posters can be seen on electoral boards near a polling station ahead of the referendum on independence from France in Noumea, on the French South Pacific territory of New Caledonia.
Posters can be seen on electoral boards near a polling station ahead of the referendum on independence from France in Noumea, on the French South Pacific territory of New Caledonia. Theo Rouby / AFP

The territory, some 2,000 kilometres (1,250 miles) east of Australia, was allowed three independence referendums under a 1988 deal aimed at easing tensions on the island group.

Having rejected a breakaway from their French former colonial masters in 2018 and then again last year, the territory’s 185,000 voters will be asked one last time: “Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?”

The vote comes against the backdrop of increasingly strained ties between Paris and its allies in the region.

France regards itself as a major Indo-Pacific power thanks to overseas territories like New Caledonia.

President Emmanuel Macron has insisted that the French state takes no side in the referendum and only has the job of ensuring it proceeds fairly and smoothly. “The day after (the vote), whatever the result is, there will be a shared life” between New Caledonia and France, he said on Thursday.

Polls open on Sunday at 8:00 am local time (2100 GMT Saturday) and close at 6:00 pm local time (0500 GMT Sunday) with the results expected a few hours later.

Australia infuriated France in September by ditching a submarine contract in favour of a security pact with Britain and the United States.

READ ALSO: France ‘stabbed in back’ by Australia over submarine deal, says minister

Behind the recent spat looms China’s growing role in the region, with experts suspecting that an independent New Caledonia could be more amenable to Beijing’s advances, which are partly motivated by an interest in the territory’s mining industry.

China is already the biggest single client for New Caledonia’s metal exports, especially for nickel.

China’s ‘pearl necklace’
“If the French safeguard disappears, all elements would be in place for China to establish itself permanently in New Caledonia,” said Bastien Vandendyck, an international relations analyst specialising in the Pacific.

Other nations 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.

Pro-independence campaigners are boycotting Sunday’s vote, saying they want it postponed to September because “a fair campaign” is not possible while coronavirus infection numbers are high.

New Caledonia’s 270,000 inhabitants were largely spared Covid infections during the first phase of the global pandemic, but have suffered close to 300 Covid deaths since the appearance of the Delta variant in recent months.

The French government has rejected the demand, saying the virus spread had slowed down, with the infection rate down to a relatively modest 80 to 100 cases per 100,000 people.

The pro-independence movement has still threatened non-recognition of the referendum outcome, and vowed to appeal to the United Nations to get it cancelled.

The French minister in charge of overseas territories, Sebastien Lecornu, said that while it was “a democratic right” to refuse to vote, the boycott would make no difference to the referendum’s “legal validity”.

‘Declaration of war’ 
The pro-French camp, meanwhile, has called on its supporters to turn out in numbers, fearing that the boycott by the pro-independence parties may prompt them to stay at home since victory may look like a foregone conclusion.

“It is important that the mobilisation of the no-independence supporters remains absolute, to show that they are in a majority and united in their wish for New Caledonia to remain part of the French Republic,” Thierry Santa, president of the conservative Rassemblement-LR party, wrote in a letter to voters.

In June, the various political parties agreed with the French government that Sunday’s referendum, whatever its outcome, should lead to “a period of stability and convergence” and be followed by a new referendum by June 2023 which would decide on the “project” that New Caledonia’s people want to pursue.

But hopes for a smooth transition were jolted when the main indigenous pro-independence movement, the FLNKS, deemed the government’s insistence on going ahead with the referendum “a declaration of war”.

Observers fear that renewed tensions could even spark a return of the kind of violence last seen 30 years ago, before the feuding parties reached successive deals to ensure the island group’s peaceful transition.

The pro-Paris side won the 2018 referendum with 56.7 percent of the vote, but that percentage fell to 53.3 percent in the 2020 election.

The archipelago has been a French territory since 1853.

READ ALSO: Five things to know about the far-flung French territory of New Caledonia

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POLITICS

French diplomats to strike over ‘avalanche’ of reforms

French diplomats are to strike next month for only the second time in their history, protesting an "avalanche" of reforms that unions say are undermining the foreign service at a time of global tensions.

French diplomats to strike over 'avalanche' of reforms

“The Quai d’Orsay is disappearing little by little,” read a statement from six staff unions, using a familiar name for the French foreign ministry’s headquarters on the south bank of the Seine in central Paris.

The main complaint is a reform to career structures which will see the special status accorded to the most senior diplomats scrapped from next year, unions say.

“These measures dismantling our diplomatic service make no sense at a time when war has returned in Europe,” their joint statement said.

Under changes championed by President Emmanuel Macron, and rushed through by decree in April, top foreign service officials would lose their special protected status and be absorbed in a larger pool of elite public sector workers.

This could mean France’s roughly 700 most senior diplomats being asked to join other ministries and facing competition from non-diplomats for top postings.

“We’re very worried,” one serving diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity. “We’re not interchangeable. I have the utmost respect for my colleagues in other state services but I don’t know how to do their job and they don’t know how to do mine.”

The strike has been called for June 2nd.

France has the third-biggest foreign service in the world after China and the United States, with around 14,000 employees at the foreign ministry in total.

The vast majority of these are non-diplomats or people on local contracts in countries around the world.

The aim of the government shake-up is to encourage more mobility between state services, which have historically been divided up into separate units with rules and job protections that make moving between them very difficult.

The government is also keen to attract new, more diverse candidates to the diplomatic service by opening new routes to the ministry, but critics see a danger of political interference.

“The door is now open to American-style nominations,” former ambassador to Washington and vocal critic of the reform, Gerard Araud, tweeted last month.

American ambassadors are named by the president, who often uses the power to reward political allies and donors with plum foreign postings.

The last and only strike by French diplomats was in 2003 to push for pay increases.

The stoppage on June 2nd underlines “the real malaise in the ministry, which does not have a rebellious culture,” Olivier da Silva from the CFTC union said.

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