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New Caledonia goes to the polls on self-determination

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Voters in a French territory in the South Pacific go to the polls this weekend. New Caledonians are voting for independence again. They voted twice before in 2018 and in 2020 to break away from Paris, and each time, the yes vote grows. As Ashley Westerman reports, analysts say this final ballot could make New Caledonia independent.

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: But there's a wrinkle. The pro-independence faction doesn't want the vote to move forward this weekend. Why? The pandemic. It's prompted lockdowns across New Caledonia and has killed nearly 300 people.

CHARLES WEA: The majority of the people who die are Kanaks.

WESTERMAN: Charles Wea is Kanak, the territory's Indigenous population. He's also a member of the pro-independence coalition. I reached him in Paris.

WEA: We told the French government to perform the referendum next year in order so that Kanak people can do their mourning.

WESTERMAN: Kanak mourning rites can take up to a year. And even though Wea has fought in his people's struggle for self-determination his entire life, he supports his coalition's call for non-participation in the vote. This moment comes after more than a century of often violent unrest between New Caledonia's mostly French settlers and the Kanak. Ziad Gebran is with the French Ministry of the Overseas.

ZIAD GEBRAN: It's their right to not participate.

WESTERMAN: He says France, which wants to hold the vote this year for a number of reasons, including to avoid it overlapping with French national elections in 2022, really wants to move past all this.

GEBRAN: Our position is that we need to organize it very quickly to open a new phase of the Caledonia history. We need to have other political discussions about the future of the territory.

DENISE FISHER: At the 11th hour, for France to kind of pull the rug out from it in such a way is quite incomprehensible.

WESTERMAN: Denise Fisher is a former Australian diplomat once based in the territory. She notes that the 1998 agreement between France and New Caledonia that set the stage for the referendums doesn't actually expire until late 2022.

FISHER: And so there was plenty of time, and time was on the independence party's side. It must be said. They always preferred a later rather than earlier vote.

WESTERMAN: That has to do with demographics and who can vote, says Alexandre Dayant with the Sydney-based Lowy Institute.

ALEXANDRE DAYANT: There's a clear correlation between being an Indigenous person from New Caledonia with voting for independence.

WESTERMAN: In order to cast a ballot in the referendum, a voter needs either to have emigrated to the territory before 1988 or have been born there at any time and be over the age of 18.

DAYANT: So every year you have new Kanak people in the age of voting.

WESTERMAN: Dayant says the demographics may have changed enough that the pro-independence vote could achieve a majority this time around, and that could have massive consequences. Among other things, the Kanak want more control over their economy, including the territory's wealth of nickel reserves. And at a time when China's influence has been growing in the Pacific, an independent New Caledonia also affects France's status in the region, says Fisher.

FISHER: Their Indo-Pacific vision is based on their sovereignty and their various positions in the two oceans. Therefore, its performance in New Caledonia and the immediate Pacific reaction to it is extremely important for its status and acceptance as an Indo-Pacific partner.

WESTERMAN: Charles Wea says once his homeland achieves independence, they'll work with whomever they want.

WEA: France, Australia, China, any country that want to help us.

WESTERMAN: But if his faction doesn't participate this weekend, that means the vote could swing against them. And that could lead to renewed unrest, maybe even violence, in New Caledonia.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Westerman.

(SOUNDBITE OF JINSANG'S "LEARNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.