France's New Caledonia set for final independence referendum in December

By Dominique Vidalon and Sudip Kar-Gupta

PARIS (Reuters) -The French Pacific island of New Caledonia, which rejected independence in two previous referendums, will have a third and final vote on Dec. 12, France's overseas territories minister said on Wednesday.

The referendum would be followed by a two-year transition period to allow Paris to clarify its relations with New Caledonia, minister Sebastien Lecornu said.

"The government of the Republic will organise and call voters concerned by this consultation on Dec. 12, 2021" he told reporters after a meeting of the French cabinet.

The referendum, which Lecornu said was part of a long and complex decolonisation process, would thus take place before the Spring 2022 presidential election, in which President Emmanuel Macron is expected to seek a second mandate.

New Caledonia, which houses business operations for Brazilian multinational mining company Vale and French mining group Eramet, has been hit by riots in recent months.

Up to three referendums by 2022 were permitted under the terms of the 1998 Noumea Accord, an agreement enshrined in France’s constitution and which set out a 20-year path towards decolonisation.

New Caledonia enjoys a large degree of autonomy but depends heavily on France for matters such as defence and education.

Prime Minister Jean Castex told the French Senate later on Thursday that the results of a third referendum could be "tight", given the outome of the previous ones.

The territory in October 2020 voted against independence from France with 53% in favour of staying under French control. That was however down from 57% in a 2018 referendum.

The archipelago became a French colony in 1853. Tensions have long run deep between pro-independence indigenous Kanaks and descendants of colonial settlers who remain loyal to Paris.

Under French colonial rule the Kanaks were confined to reserves and excluded from much of the island's economy. The first revolt erupted in 1878, not long after the discovery of large nickel deposits.

New Caledonia lies some 1,200 km (750 miles) east of Australia and 20,000 km (12,500 miles) from Paris.

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Dominique Vidalon; Editing by Clelia Oziel and Angus MacSwan)