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New Caledonia votes on independence from France

New Caledonia at a crossroads. Will it choose independence? - Photo: RNZ/ Walter Zweifel

'Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?'

That's the question put to voters today as they decide whether to end New Caledonia's status as a colony of France.

Today's vote is the culmination of a peaceful 30-year decolonisation process which has seen a phased and irreversible transfer of a range of powers from France to enhance New Caledonia's autonomy.

What is still left with France, and voted on today, is control over defence, policing, the judiciary, monetary policy and foreign affairs.

Opting for independence would also allow New Caledonia to join the United Nations like its four Melanesian neighbours - Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Fiji.

More than 200 polling stations are open territory-wide for the 174,000 voters registered to take part in this plebiscite.

The electoral roll, which has been the subject of prolonged controversy, is made up of indigenous Kanaks and includes only those non-Kanaks who have lived in New Caledonia continuously since 1994.

These restrictions were negotiated and put in place to take into account decades of massive inward migration which have rendered the Kanaks a minority in their own country.

For today's vote there have been comprehensive preparations, with people being encouraged to vote in large numbers as to give the result tonight as much legitimacy as possible.

Some towns in the north of the main island put on free buses to allow voters in Noumea to make it back home for today's vote.

Defying these efforts is the small Labour Party, which has advised its supporters to shun today's referendum and to 'go fishing' instead.

Although the campaign has been peaceful, there is nervousness about the aftermath.

Some people spoken to say there might be trouble but there is no specific scenario of what could happen and where.

However for Antoine Thale, a young Kanak lining up to be among the first voters at the Noumea Town Hall, there is nothing to worry about.

To provide additional security, 350 extra French riot police have been in New Caledonia since the middle of October.

For the weekend, there is a ban on the sale of alcohol and it is explicitly forbidden to carry arms or transport ammunition until tomorrow.

Noumea has dropped today's planned cruise ship visits purportedly as not to interfere with polling activities.

More than 200 magistrates and senior officials have been flown in from France to help supervise the poll.

Monitors from the Pacific Islands Forum are here as are observers from the United Nations which has been keeping an eye on the New Caledonia since it was returned to its decolonisation list in 1986.

Vote counting is expected to be swift, with first preliminary results out within an hour after polls close.

Expectations are that within four hours, the final unofficial tally will be known.

And as locals consider the verdict they will get the French government's interpretation of the result right away.

The Elysee Palace has announced that five hours after polls close, President Emmanuel Macron will give a televised address.

During his visit to New Caledonia in May, he declined to take sides to the dismay of those who want the territory to remain French.

However, he said "France would not be the same without New Caledonia", while restating his wish to retain New Caledonia as a key component of the 'Indo-Pacific axis' to contain China.

The campaign leading up today's vote, trouble-free as it was, yielded few headlines in France and despite the referendum's significance media attention has been scant, but jumped to the top of the news agenda once the vote was imminent.

Polls in France show many people are not interested or not aware of what is at stake, while a France TV poll found that a majority of those questioned considered independence for New Caledonia to be "good or very good thing".

The prime minister Edouard Philippe, who is now on a visit to Vietnam, will be in Noumea tomorrow morning - two hours after the head of the supervising body Francis Lamy is scheduled to proclaim the official final result.

After the last independence referendum in 1987, the then prime minister French Jacques Chirac arrived in New Caledonia five days after the vote.

Jetting around half the globe in a Concorde, he hailed the electoral triumph as more than 98 percent had voted to stay with France.

No matter the outcome of today's vote, complex discussions await both New Caledonia's politicians and the French government.

Either there will be a transition to independence or, more likely, the option of holding two more independence referendums by 2022 will be taken up.

Both such votes could fall into the current term of Mr Macron who during last year's presidential campaign labelled French colonialism a 'crime against humanity'.

He was referring to Algeria - not New Caledonia.


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