Macron Hands French Pacific Territory Referendum on Independence

France plans to organize a referendum on the independence of New Caledonia, an archipelago in the strategic waters of the Pacific, on Dec. 12.

Sebastien Lecornu, French minister for overseas territories, called for a new era of “convergence and stability” as part of the “decolonization process,” after a cabinet meeting on Wednesday.

Holding a referendum by the year’s end would allow President Emmanuel Macron to try and turn the page on the subject before the April 2022 presidential election, in which he’s expected to seek a second term. And yet losing the territory would deal a blow. Apart holding a fourth of the world’s reserves of nickel, New Caledonia is key to France’s sway in a region that’s seen growing Chinese influence.

Lecornu acknowledged the risks for Macron, saying that “some national politicians might be tempted” to make the referendum a topic of debate during the campaign.

Macron Hands French Pacific Territory Referendum on Independence

Some 170 years ago, France annexed the islands to set up a penal colony and a port. Today, residents hold French nationality but the indigenous population, the Kanak, have long-complained of being sidelined from the economy, and from the management of nickel production in particular. Frustrations exploded in the 1980s Kanak revolt, and then subsided again after a series of peace accords.

In 1998, France officially recognized Kanak identity and promised to grant increased autonomy to the territory, including with up to three independence referendums by 2022. Two referendums have already been held. French loyalists obtained 53% in 2020, down from 57% in 2018. The difference this time is that New Caledonia now has a government composed largely of pro-independence politicians.

Wednesday’s announcement follows days of discussions in Paris with elected officials from the territory.

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