The Pacific territory of New Caledonia voted Sunday in a third and final referendum on independence from France with campaigning marked by angry demands to call off the vote because of the Covid pandemic.
The territory, 2,000 kilometres (1,250 miles) east of Australia, was granted three independence referendums under a 1988 deal aimed at easing tensions on the islands.
Having rejected a breakaway from their French former colonial masters in 2018 and then again last year, the territory's 185,000 voters are being asked one last time: "Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?"
The vote comes against the backdrop of increasingly strained ties between Paris and its regional allies.
France regards itself as a major Indo-Pacific player thanks to overseas territories such as New Caledonia.
President Emmanuel Macron has insisted the French state takes no side in the referendum, other than to ensure fair and smooth proceedings.
"The day after (the vote), whatever the result is, there will be a shared life" between New Caledonia and France, he said Thursday.
Polls opened at 7:00 am local time (2000 GMT Saturday), and were to close at 6:00 pm local time (0500 GMT Sunday) with the results expected a few hours later.
Pacific power Australia infuriated France in September by ditching a massive submarine contract in favour of a security pact with Britain and the United States.
Behind the spat looms China's growing role, with experts suspecting that an independent New Caledonia could be more amenable to Beijing's advances, which are partly motivated by an interest in the territory's vast nickel reserves.
China is already the biggest single client for New Caledonia's metal exports.
China's 'pearl necklace'
"If the French safeguard disappears, all elements would be in place for China to establish itself permanently in New Caledonia," said international relations analyst Bastien Vandendyck.
Other nations in the region, including Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, had already become "Chinese satellites", Vandendyck told AFP.
"All China needs now to complete its pearl necklace on Australia's doorstep is New Caledonia," he said.
Pro-independence campaigners are boycotting Sunday's vote, saying they want it postponed to September because "a fair campaign" is not possible with high coronavirus infection numbers.
New Caledonia's 270,000 inhabitants were largely spared during the pandemic's first phase, but have suffered close to 300 Covid-19 deaths since the recent appearance of the Delta variant.
The French government has rejected the demand, saying the virus spread had slowed, with the infection rate falling to a modest 80 to 100 cases per 100,000 people.
The pro-independence movement has still threatened non-recognition of the referendum outcome and vowed to appeal to the United Nations to get it cancelled.
The French minister in charge of overseas territories, Sebastien Lecornu, said that while it was "a democratic right" to refuse to vote, the boycott would make no difference to the referendum's "legal validity".
A cyclone warning was issued on Saturday to complicate voting as a tropical depression loomed.
'Declaration of war'
The pro-French camp, meanwhile, has called on supporters to turn out, fearing the boycott by pro-independence parties may prompt them to stay at home with victory looking like a foregone conclusion.
"It is important that the mobilisation of the no-independence supporters remains absolute, to show that they are in a majority and united in their wish for New Caledonia to remain part of the French Republic," said Thierry Santa, president of the conservative Rassemblement-LR party.
In June, the various political parties agreed with the French government the referendum, whatever its outcome, should lead to "a period of stability and convergence" and be followed by a new referendum by June 2023 which would decide on the "project" New Caledonia's people want to pursue.
But hopes for a smooth transition were jolted when the main indigenous pro-independence movement, the FLNKS, deemed the government's insistence on going ahead with the referendum "a declaration of war".
Observers fear renewed tensions could even spark a return of the kind of violence last seen 30 years ago.
The pro-Paris side won the 2018 referendum with 56.7 percent of the vote, but that fell to 53.3 percent in the 2020 election.