Voters have been flocking to the polls in the French territory of New Caledonia for a historic vote on independence.
The referendum has exposed social and economic fault lines in New Caledonia, but a clear ethnic divide was on display on Sunday morning in the capital, Noumea.
The atmosphere in Noumea was calm, with voters quietly forming long, orderly queues at polling stations.
They will vote Yes or No to a simple question: “Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?”
Very high turnout for New Caledonia independence referendum reported by French High Commission in Noumea. 41.81% at midday versus 27.27% for benchmark 2014 NC provincial poll #NouvelleCaledonie #ReferendumNC2018 @SBSNews pic.twitter.com/Tnz0DxHE4c
— Stefan Armbruster (@StefArmbruster) November 4, 2018
The independence movement has drawn its main support from the indigenous people of New Caledonia, the Kanaks, who argue that they have a right to self-determination free from France.
In contrast, many New Caledonians with a European background favour remaining with Paris.
Voters at booths in heavily Kanak parts of Noumea voiced strong support for independence.
Kevin cast his vote for Yes at a school in the suburb of Riviere Salle on Noumea’s northern outskirts.
“When I put my vote in the box, I almost cried because I thought of all the dads, all the mums who really fought hard for this,” he told the ABC.
“I have confidence in my people, for the wealth that is here. Our culture is rich, we are full of colour. I think that we are ready.”
But voters in the wealthy suburb of Ouema seemed largely opposed to independence.
One voter, Fred, said he feared New Caledonia could descend into lawlessness if it embraced full independence.
“When you have knowledge of what is going on in [other] south Pacific countries [you see] no one has real freedom.
“How many coups have you had in Fiji?” he said.
He also voiced an anxiety that is shared across many ethnic communities in New Caledonia – that the territory will be vulnerable if it loses the hefty subsidies and military protection that France provides.
“We can’t afford to be independent,” he said.
“We are under the umbrella of France. And there are obvious economic reasons. France is subsidising New Caledonia for one-third of its budget.”
‘A big blow to France’
The polls predicted a comfortable victory for the No vote, with around six in 10 voters expected to vote in favour of staying with France.
But pro-independence leaders did not give up the fight. They have been working frantically to get others to vote, urging young and politically apathetic voters in the Kanak community to cast their ballot for independence.
A Yes vote would be a big blow to France and deprive it of one of its key overseas holdings.
The Australian government has maintained a strict neutrality, but there is some unease in Canberra about the prospect of New Caledonian independence.
Some Australian politicians fear France would begin to slowly withdraw from the Pacific if it loses New Caledonia, depriving Australia of a key ally at a time when the region is becoming increasingly contested.
French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to make a public statement when the result is clear, and French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe will arrive in New Caledonia on Monday to hold talks with leaders from all parties.
Under the Noumea Accord struck in 1998 France agreed to offer New Caledonia three opportunities to say Yes to independence, with two more referendums due in 2020 and 2022.
But anti-independence politicians have been increasingly confident of victory, and are now arguing there is no need for further referendums if there is an overwhelming No vote on Sunday night.