NOUMEA: The French Pacific islands of New Caledonia began voting 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 kilometers (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.
Voting in New Caledonia’s 284 polling stations opened at 8.00 am local time Sunday (2100 GMT Saturday) and was to end at 6.00 pm, with results expected the same evening.
The participation rate was 41.8 percent at midday, compared to 27.3 percent at the same time during local elections in 2014, the High Commission said Sunday.
Some 175,000 people are eligible to vote in the remote islands fringed by spectacular beaches, with opinion polls predicting a large majority in favor of staying French.
But there are fears the referendum could inflame tensions between indigenous Kanak people, who tend to favor 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.
Separatists have urged Kanak voters to choose self-determination for Kanaky, their name for New Caledonia, and throw off the shackles of “colonial” authorities in Paris.
“It’s a great day for us. My father, my grandfather fought for this country and today is the second fight in the ballot box,” said pro-independence supporter Patrick Watrone on Sunday, dressed in the colors of Kanak flag.
But indigenous people make up less than 50 percent of the electorate and some Kanaks back staying part of France, not least due to the 1.3 billion euros ($1.5 billion) the French state hands to the islands every year.
Going it alone, “I’m not sure we have all the assets we’d need to succeed,” said Marc Gnipate, a 62-year-old pensioner.
Polls suggest 63 to 75 percent of voters will opt against breaking away from France, which claimed the islands in 1853 and once used them as a penal colony.
Under the 1998 deal, in the event of a “no” vote two further referendums on independence can still be held before 2022.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who is due to give a televised address after the results, has largely stayed clear of the campaign but during a visit to Noumea in May he declared “France would be less beautiful without New Caledonia.”
He also raised concerns over increasing Chinese influence in the Pacific, where Beijing has invested heavily in Vanuatu, a territory which broke from France and Britain in 1980.
Accusing the US of “turning its back on the region in recent months,” Macron said China was “building its hegemony step by step” in the Pacific — suggesting an independent New Caledonia could provide Beijing’s next foothold.
Australia has also expressed concerns about China’s activities in neighboring island states — which the Lowy Institute think-tank estimates received $1.78 billion in aid from Beijing from 2006-16 — boosting its own spending in response.
While Australia officially remains neutral on New Caledonia’s independence vote, Canberra’s former consul-general in Noumea Denise Fisher said it appreciated the stability France’s Pacific presence offered in the face of China’s rise.
“It’s been fortunate for Australia to have a well-resourced Western ally such as France engaged in the region, particularly at a time when there’s a lot of geo-strategic change and new players like China coming into the region,” she told the ABC.
“There are a few uncertainties arising now.”
Home to 269,000 people, New Caledonia is one of a handful of French island outposts — a legacy of the country’s 19th-century empire — which retain strategic importance.
The referendum will be a test of the appeal of remaining part of France for such far-flung territories, which are heavily dependent on state handouts but where many feel overlooked by Paris.
Both French Guiana in South America and the Indian Ocean archipelago of Mayotte have been rocked since last year by major protests over living standards and perceived neglect.
In New Caledonia, there are fears that the vote could expose tensions over stark inequalities which persist despite government efforts to redress the economic balance in favor of Kanaks.
The Kanak community is plagued by high school dropout rates, chronic unemployment and poor housing conditions.
Gangs of delinquent youths have become increasingly common on the streets and both sides fear violence among them if the “no” vote prevails.