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France grants New Caledonia third and final independence referendum

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(FILES) In this file photo taken on December 14, 2003 Victor Tutugoro, spokesman of the Socialist Kanak National Liberation Front (FLNKS), speaks during the party congress on the French South Pacific territory of New Caledonia in Noumea. – The pro-independence FLNKS has asked the State to organise the third and last referendum on the independence of New Caledonia as part of the Noumea agreement (1998), Tutugoro announced on April 8, 2021. (Photo by MARC LE CHELARD / AFP)

Paris has granted its Pacific territory of New Caledonia a third referendum on independence after two earlier votes narrowly chose to remain part of France, officials said.

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France’s minister for overseas territories, Sebastien Lecornu, agreed to a request Thursday from the New Caledonia legislature to hold a third and final referendum in the next 18 months as provided for under the terms of a decolonisation plan agreed in 1998.

The French government will “keep to its word and organise the referendum before October 2022,” he said in a statement.

The 1998 “Noumea Accord”, which ended a deadly conflict between the mostly pro-independence indigenous Kanak population and the descendants of European settlers, provided for up to three independence referendums by 2022 if requested by at least a third of the local legislature.

On Thursday a group of 26 pro-independence lawmakers — just under half of the total legislature — sent a joint letter to the French High Commission requesting the third vote.

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Lecornu called for “the engagement of all to ensure the referendum campaign is peaceful, respectful and constructive”.

New Caledonia, which has been controlled by France for almost 170 years, has voted on independence twice in the last three years.

In the first referendum in 2018, 57 percent voted to remain part of France; in the second, in October 2020, that decreased to 53 percent.

French President Emmanuel Macron said after the 2020 vote that he felt a “profound sense of gratitude” over the result, but also “humility” at the closeness of the vote, which few had predicted.

France, which is more than 16,000 kilometres (10,000 miles) away from the territory, subsidises New Caledonia with around 1.5 billion euros ($1.75 billion) every year, the equivalent of more than 15 percent of its gross domestic product.

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