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Coronavirus: New Caledonia separatists want France independence vote postponed due to COVID-19

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By Alessio Dellanna  & AFP
A man and a woman line up to cast their votes at a polling station in Nouméa, New Caledonia, as part of the independence referendum - November 4, 2018
A man and a woman line up to cast their votes at a polling station in Nouméa, New Caledonia, as part of the independence referendum - November 4, 2018   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Mathurin Derel
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Separatists in New Caledonia, a group of islands east of Australia, have called for a referendum on independence from France to be postponed.

They want the vote on splitting from Paris, scheduled for September 6 and the second in two years, to be put back due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and to avoid it overlapping with municipal elections.

"It is clear that the initial schedule is a bit turned upside down," said Louis Mapou, head of the National Union for Independence (UNI) movement.

"The second round of the municipal elections will take place in June which we were supposed to have finished in March," he added.

Why a second referendum?

France formally annexed New Caledonia in 1853.

But, as part of its decolonisation process, Paris, in 1998, signed the Nouméa Agreement, which formally gave New Caledonia the right to hold an independence vote twenty years later, in 2018.

That was held on November 4, 2018. Voters rejected splitting from France by 56.4 per cent to 43.6 per cent.

President Emmanuel Macron said he was "proud" New Caledonia had shown confidence in the French Republic.

However, under the terms of the 1998 deal, New Caledonia can hold a second ballot in 2020 and even a third in 2022 if the territory's legislature agrees.

Last year, a second referendum was scheduled for September 6, 2020.

What's next?

UNI says it will hold talks about a new referendum date on Friday.

Victor Tutugoro, a prominent figure in the pro-independence Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), said he would like to vote by the end of October to avoid overlapping with the municipal election campaign.

Sonia Backès, president of New Caledonia's South Province and anti-independence figure, has firmly opposed postponing the date.

"We gave our word for September 6, we don't want to postpone it at all," she told AFP, accusing the separatists of "putting pressure on the state".

[Référendum] Le 6 mai 2020, déconfinons nos drapeaux, affichons nos couleurs partout dans le pays, pour que Kanaky vive ✊?? #PlusQue4MoisAvantNotreLiberté

Publiée par FLNKS-Officiel sur Jeudi 30 avril 2020
Pro-independence board posted by FLNKS on Facebook

COVID-19 heats up New Caledonia's political tensions

Daniel Goa, president of the Union Calédonienne, one of the main organisations of the FLNKS, called for the sacking of the high commissioner and his staff, as well as that of the commander of the armed forces.

He lambasted the "Jacobin vision" of the state in managing the COVID-19 crisis, calling it "partisan and disloyal".

He also accused the army of not respecting the quarantine protocol upon arrival in capital city Nouméa.

Conservatives Le Rassemblement (LR) deemed this "a political manoeuvre", while Backès pointed her finger at New Caledonia's "destabilisation enterprise".

New Caledonia was the first French territory to begin lifting lockdown restrictions, on April 20.

The country, which has a population of more than 270,000, has so far only had 18 COVID-19 cases, with no deaths recorded, according to Johns Hopkins University.