The French Pacific islands of New Caledonia vote Sunday on whether to become an independent nation, in a closely-watched test of support for France in one of its many territories scattered around the globe.
Some 18,000 kilometres (11,000 miles) from the French mainland, New Caledonia is home to a quarter of the world’s known supplies of nickel — a vital electronics component — and is a strategic foothold for France in the Pacific.
Some 175,000 people are eligible to vote in the remote islands fringed by spectacular beaches, with opinion polls predicting a large majority in favour of staying French.
But there are fears the referendum could inflame tensions between indigenous Kanak people, who tend to favour independence, and the white population, which boiled over into deadly violence in the 1980s.
The quasi-civil war claimed more than 70 lives. It led to the 1998 Noumea Accord which paved the way for the steady devolution of powers as well as Sunday’s referendum.
On Friday, separatist activists drove along Noumea’s waterfront in a convoy of around 20 cars, waving the Kanak flag to cries of “Kanaky” — their name for New Caledonia.
Separatists have urged Kanak voters to choose self-determination, throwing off the shackles of “colonial” authorities in Paris.
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SOURCE: AFP, Claudine Wery and Cécile Azzaro