People queue outside a school to vote in a referendum in Noumea, New Caledonia on Dec12, 2021. (CLOTHILDE RICHALET / AP)
CANBERRA - The French territory of New Caledonia voted on Sunday in an independence referendum, the third and final ballot on the issue, amid heightened fears of violence in the tiny Pacific island.
The final vote is expected to be tight, after two previous polls, in 2018 and 2020, narrowed the "No" vote from 57 percent to 53 percent.
One of five island territories spanning the Indo-Pacific held by France, New Caledonia is the centrepiece of President Emmanuel Macron's plan to increase its influence in the Pacific
However, the indigenous Kanak population, who largely favor independence, have called for non-participation in the referendum as they are in a 12-month mourning period following September's surge in Delta infections of the coronavirus.
"Early signs in New Caledonia that the independence movement call for 'non-participation' is being heeded," a journalist in the Pacific, Nic Maclellan, said on Twitter.
"While there are queues of voters at Noumea town hall in the capital, few voters are turning out so far in Kanak-majority areas in the Loyalty Islands and Northern Province."
Just over 41 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballots by 5 pm local time (0600 GMT), the French embassy in New Caledonia said. That was well below the figure at the same time during the 2020 vote, when nearly 80 percent of votes had been cast.
Analysts fear a "no" vote will drive anger among those who support independence, stoking instability.
One of five island territories spanning the Indo-Pacific held by France, New Caledonia is the centrepiece of President Emmanuel Macron's plan to increase its influence in the Pacific.
Sunday's vote is the third prescribed by a deal hammered out a decade after talks on the island's future began in 1988, and which called for a series of independence referendums.
Fighting erupted in the 1980s in the nickel-rich territory, 1,200 km (750 miles) east of Australia and 20,000 km (12,000 miles) from France, between supporters of independence and those who wanted to stay French.