Residents of the French territory of New Caledonia are voting on whether to seek independence from Paris. Some fear the referendum could reignite old ethnic tensions on the island.Voters in New Caledonia were set to cast their ballots on Sunday in a referendum to decide whether to split from France, which claimed the South Pacific island cluster as part of its empire in 1853.
The referendum, which asks the 174,000 registered voters the question "Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?," is the result of a process that started three decades ago to devolve powers to local authorities.
The vote is being seen as a litmus test of sentiment in France's far-flung overseas territories, with both French Guiana in South America and the Indian Ocean archipelago of Mayotte having experienced protests last year over perceived neglect by Paris.
New Caledonia has a population of some 270,000 people, including native Kanaks, who make up some 40 percent, and people of European descent, a minority of 27 percent.
Some fear that Sunday's vote could lead to a resurgence of simmering ethnic tensions that resulted in deadly clashes in the 1980s in which some 70 people died. The violence was what led to the 1998 Noumea Accord, which paved the way for the territory's increasing autonomy and aimed to redress the economic imbalances that were behind the unrest.
However, opinion polls and previous elections in New Caledonia results suggest that a majority will vote for the South Pacific territory to remain part of France.
Many of those opposed to independence say that the country is economically reliant on the €1.3 billion ($1.5 billion) that the French state contributes every year. Others have voiced concern that an independent New Caledonia might be seized upon by China as an opportunity to further consolidate its influence in the Pacific, citing as an example Beijing's major investments in Vanuatu, which split from France in 1980.
The country already has control over many areas of government. However, defense, foreign affairs, justice and higher education are still under French administration.
The 1998 deal allows two more referendums on independence to be held by 2022 if this one ends in a "no" vote.
New Caledonian authorities banned the carrying of firearms and alcohol sales immediately before and during the vote.
Polling stations are to close at 6 p.m. local time (07:00 UTC), with results expected later on Sunday.
tj/rc (AFP, AP)
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