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French island territory to vote on independence

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French island territory to vote on independence

French island territory to vote on independence
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New Caledonia, a French territory in the South Pacific, is preparing to vote on independence.

Over 174,000 voters are qualified to vote in a self-determination referendum on Sunday in which they will have to answer the question "Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?"

The territory comprises one large main island and a smaller group of islands, and is comparable in size to Slovenia.

It lies off the east coast of Australia, with the capital, Noumea, a two-hour flight from Queensland.

New Caledonia has been a French colony since 1853 but this is not the first talk of independence. The referendum is the latest development in a three-decade-long struggle that has at times turned violent.

Who is likely to win?

In a 1987 poll on independence, people voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining under French rule although turn-out was very low with many pro-independence supporters boycotting the vote.

Since then France has granted more autonomy to New Caledonia and has not stood in the way in the planning of this latest referendum.

French President Emmanuel Macron has made clear he would like to see New Caledonia remain with his country but has also said his government will not take sides. He visited the islands earlier this year.

Australia has taken no official position on the outcome.

The strongest support for independence comes from the indigenous Kanak, who make up around 39 percent of the population.

Most of those against the break from France are either French, those of French descendancy or other Europeans. They account for 27 percent with the remainder being Wallisians, Polynesians and Indonesians.

The French Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, is due to visit the islands the day after the referendum, possibly an indication that they expect the voters to reject independence.

Polls suggest an overwhelming majority – between 69 and 75% – will vote against independence.

France is not standing in the way of further votes on the issue, but on his May visit to New Caledonia, Macron spoke of a new strategic axis to counter the rise of China in the Indo-Pacific.

He said that axis would include Australia, France, India, and New Caledonia - provided it remained French.