Voters took to the polls in large numbers in the South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia on Sunday for a referendum on whether to break away from France after nearly 170 years.
A “yes” vote would see France lose its most import Pacific territory and dent the pride of a former colonial power whose reach once spanned the Caribbean, large parts of Africa, Asia and the Pacific.
The referendum also coincides with geopolitical reconfiguration in the Pacific, where China is expanding its influence at the expense of traditional Western players.
As of late on Sunday, the estimated turnout was 79.63%, according to the Office of the High Commissioner of the Republic in New Caledonia.
More than 180,000 long-term residents of New Caledonia are registered to vote yes or no on the question: “Do you want New Caledonia to gain its full sovereignty and become independent?”
New Caledonia has grappled with the question of decolonisation for decades. In 2018, it voted against separating from France, but with the independence vote stronger than forecast and Sunday’s referendum is being keenly watched.
It is part of the 1998 Noumea Accord signed by France, the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front and anti-independence leaders.
New Caledonia, an island chain some 1,200 km (750 miles) east of Australia and 20,000 km (12,500 miles) from Paris, enjoys a large degree of autonomy but depends heavily on France for matters such as defence and education.
Its economy is underpinned by annual French subsidies of some 1.3 billion euros ($1.5 billion) and nickel deposits that are estimated to represent 25% of the world’s total, and tourism.