NOUMEA – Voters in New Caledonia, a French archipelago in the South Pacific, will choose whether they want independence from France in a referendum that marks a milestone in a three-decade decolonization effort.
Sunday’s vote is key to determining the future of the archipelago east of Australia and its 270,000 inhabitants, including both native Kanaks, who once suffered from strict segregation policies, and descendants of European colonizers.
The vote was long-planned and is focused on local issues, but comes at a time when the legacy of colonialism is under new scrutiny globally after protests in recent months against racial injustice inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S.
In Sunday's referendum, more than 180,000 registered voters will be asked to answer the question “Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?”
No opinion polls have been released, but two years ago, 56.4% of voters who participated in a similar referendum chose to keep ties with Paris — 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) and nine times zones away — instead of backing independence.
Both referendums are the final steps of a long process that started 30 years ago after years of violence that pitched pro-independence Kanak activists against those willing to remain in France.
A peace deal between rival factions was achieved in 1988. TA decade later, the Noumea Agreement granted New Caledonia political power and broad autonomy and planned the organization of up to three successive referendums.
If voters choose independence on Sunday, an unspecified transition period will open so that the archipelago can get ready for its future status.