Australia Coronavirus takes a back seat ahead of New Caledonia's second independence referendum
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As coronavirus cases, in the tiny French territory of New Caledonia, the pandemic has taken a back seat to concerns around its upcoming referendum on independence.
This Sunday, more than 180,000 voters will cast their ballot to find out whether New Caledonia will stick with France or become its own independent state.
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They will be asked to vote Yes or No to the question: "Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?"
It's the second time in two years that New Caledonia will hold an independence referendum—back in 2018, the territory.
But an aggressive 2020 campaign fought by both the pro-independence and pro-French blocs has left some fearing further disharmony, no matter which side wins this weekend.
'A question of dignity'
Many of New Caledonia's Indigenous Kanak voters see Sunday's vote as a referendum on their right to govern their land.
"It is really a question of dignity," said Patricia Goa, a pro-independence campaigner and politician in New Caledonia's congress.
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"It's really important for us Kanaks and for Caledonians to decide for ourselves. That's where the fight is now."
Thirty years ago, after a bloody civil conflict referred to as "the Events", the French state, pro-independence Kanak leaders and French loyalists signed a peace deal to end the violence.
It eventually led to the 1998 Noumea Accord that has charted a transfer of some governance powers from France to New Caledonia.
That Accord says New Caledonia can have, at most, three referenda on its independence from France.
But the results of the first vote in 2018 revealed rigid ethnic and geographic divides had coloured the vote.
Many New Caledonians with a European background favoured remaining with Paris, while Kanak voters were more likely to vote for independence.
That suggests to New Caledonian political researcher Pierre-Christophe Pantz that many voters will not change their minds come Sunday's second referendum.
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"We've had these social, ethnic and geographic divisions in the distribution of votes for 30 years, and I really can't imagine a radical change between the second and first referendum," Dr Pantz said.
Wider geo-political concerns shadow Sunday's vote
French President Emanuel Macron has signalled a desire to counter China's rise in the Indo-pacific region, through new alliances with Australia and Japan.
Anti-independence politician Phillipe Gomes, who represents New Caledonia in France's national assembly, said if New Caledonia becomes independent, it could open the door to greater Chinese influence.
"An independent New Caledonia is a New Caledonia without a defence, in the hands of China," he said.
However, not everyone agrees — public law professor Mathias Chauchat said pro-independence leaders are keen to form closer ties with Australia and New Zealand, if the Yes vote is successful.
"Nobody will accept China as a political partner," he said.
"[The pro-independence group] FLNKS wants a partnership with France as a first option. The second one is to invite Australia and New Zealand to come and help the country."
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Fears of growing hostility between blocs
Though Dr Pantz expects not much will change on Sunday, he said the lead up to the referendum has been more cut-throat this year than ever before.
He points to two incidents that for him reveal a growing tension around this question of New Caledonian independence.
"A banner in the French colours, blue, white and red, was set alight — it was a symbol of France set on fire," Dr Pantz said.
"And then the grand traditional hut in the Customary Senate was also burnt down … the investigations revealed that these were isolated events, not linked to the independence or loyalist movements.
"But they do show us that the climate here is a bit toxic."
Voters have also felt that this year's referendum is shaping up to be more combative.
"It's really very unpleasant," said Delphine, a voter from Noumea, New Caledonia's capital.
"I have seen that people are taking much more radical positions than they did in 2018."
Despite voting Yes to independence during the first referendum, Delphine, who declined to give her surname as she feared backlash over her past vote, said she wasn't sure about her decision at the ballot box on Sunday.
She said the referendum forced people like her to choose their loyalty to either France or New Caledonia, but her identity was much more complex than that.
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"I find that the question that we're asking here, Yes or No, isn't really satisfying."
A vote shielded from coronavirus concerns
New Caledonia is considered "COVID-Free" by officials, with no active cases of the virus and no reports of community transmission.
Just 27 cases have been recorded in the territory so far, all of them related to travellers.
But the pandemic has featured in the campaigns for both the Yes and No vote.
"The pro-independence bloc and anti-independence bloc have both tried to take advantage of the pandemic," Dr Pantz said.
"We see the pro-independence groups asking for French state officials to return to France because of their handling of the crisis, and the non-independence groups saying that the reason we were able to handle the crisis was because of France's support."
Back in May, pro-independence leader Daniel Goa accused France of meddling in New Caledonia's affairs in its handling of the pandemic and said authorities had put Kanak lives at risk by allowing French officials into the country.
France's High Commission responded by saying that France had taken "necessary measures" to protect "every Caledonian without any distinction between them".
But today, anti-independence politician Phillip Gomes said the pandemic was not a major concern for voters in the referendum.
"New Caledonia is in a bubble, and we don't have any restrictions, no social distancing. We live like before, nothing's changed," he said.
New Caledonia: the stakes of the (second) referendum on independence .
New Caledonia must decide on Sunday during a self-determination referendum whether it remains French or chooses independence. This is the second ballot of this type organized in this territory of 270,000 inhabitants located in the Pacific, two years after a first vote which saw the pro-French win by 56.7% of the votes on November 4, 2018. Before this election, the one and only poll had announced a large victory for the support of France to more than 70%. When the latter won with only 56.7% of t