PARIS (AP) — Voters in New Caledonia, an archipelago in the south Pacific, are preparing to go to the polls on Sunday to decide on whether to break free from French rule. A look at what's at stake in the independence referendum.
ARCHIPELAGO IN SOUTH PACIFIC
New Caledonia is a group of islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean, about 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) east of Australia and 17,000 kilometers (10,500 miles) from France's mainland.
Home to 269,000 people, the native Kanaks make up about 40 percent of the population, while people from European descent account for 27 percent. The others hail from Asian countries and surrounding Pacific islands.
While part of the French overseas, it has a large degree of autonomy, with its own Congress and government.
While New Caledonia can set legislation on such issues such as labor rules and taxes, the French state handles defense, police, justice, higher education and foreign affairs.
The archipelago became French in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III — Napoleon's nephew and heir — and was used for decades as a prison colony.
The Kanaks suffered from tough segregation policies.
It became an overseas territory after World War II, with French citizenship granted to all Kanaks in 1957.
Old colonial tensions fueled a conflict between the French authorities and the Kanak pro-independence movement that led to some violence in 1988.
Successive peace accords were signed in that year and a decade later, paving the way for this year's referendum — the last step in a three-decade decolonization process.
Over 170,000 voters are qualified to answer the question: "Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?"
Only those with long-standing links to the territory are entitled to vote. The French government is taking a neutral stance.
Past electoral results and polls suggest voters will choose to remain in France.
To ensure security during the vote, 350 additional police officers have been sent to the archipelago and authorities have issued a ban on the carrying of firearms as well as the sale of alcohol over the weekend.