The announcement of New Caledonia's latest referendum on possible independence is already drawing the ire of many, less than a day after it was announced.
French overseas minister Sebastien Lecornu said the Pacific territory will vote in its third referendum in as many years on 12 December. The announcement followed a week of talks in Paris between the French government and politicians from across the spectrum in New Caledonia.
"We consider that the general interest required to make this referendum as quickly as possible," Lecornu declared. "The government of the Republic will convene the voters of the electoral list concerned by this consultation on December 12, 2021."
This referendum will be the third and final provided for by the Noumea Accord, which was signed in 1998 as part of a long and complex decolonisation process agreed to end a bout of violence in the 1980s.
The first referendum, in 2018, saw 56.7 percent vote to remain under French control, results which fell strongly down geographic and ethnic lines. The second, last year, saw a narrow result which surprised many in Paris, with the number dropping to 53.36 percent.
Pro-independence politicians, hoping to seize on the momentum towards oui for independence, last April voted to trigger the process to hold a third referendum.
But now that a date has been confirmed they're roundly criticising the French government for it, saying they wanted it to be held late next year, after the French presidential elections.
Charles Wea, a spokesperson for one of the largest pro-independence groupings, the FLNKS, said Lecornu had announced a date unilaterally without any consensus, and was playing a political game to keep New Caledonia under French control.
"The French government did not respect or take into account our position," he said in an interview. "Everybody here is upset they didn't accept our position."
Wea said pro-independence politicians would gather in the next couple of weeks to decide their next steps, saying there was a good chance that they would push to have the date changed.
"There will be a Senatorial committee that will be held in June or July, that's the moment to express our oppossition to the date to the government of France," he said.
Lecornu, in making the announcement, did concede that consensus could not be reached, but maintained that a fast process was necessary. Anti-independence politicians had wanted the referendum to be held as soon as possible.
Loyalist politician Sonia Backes, who is the assembly president of southern province, which encompasses Noumea, welcomed the hasty timeframe.
"It is a good thing that the government has taken its responsibility," she said in Paris. "We have not often had courageous governments capable of doing it."
Whatever the outcome of the referendum, a two-year period of deep change is ahead for New Caledonia, which Lecornu said would be a challenge, but also a period of "convergence, discussions and stability" he hoped would end in June 2023.
In the French Senate on Thursday, Prime Minister Jean Castex said he expected the results of a third referendum to be "tight," given the outcomes of previous ones.
If the people vote oui, a new independent state will have to be formed. "We will have to take this time until 2023 to clarify the link between the French Republic and the new independent state," Lecornu said, adding that the period would end with a referendum on a new constitution.
But if the people again vote non, a new governance arrangement will have to be created to replace the Noumea Accord, which is about to expire.
The current accord sets out a high degree of autonomy for New Caledonia and has been credited with holding two decades of peace in the territory. If the difference between the pro- and anti-independence camps is narrow again, then that is likely to be a difficult process.
"We will have to draw a new path for the institutions of New Caledonia," Lecornu said.
"Whatever happens there will be a fourth referendum consultation," he added, before correcting himself. "A first referendum consultation of a post-Noumea era."
New Caledonia has been under French control since 1853, and tensions between the indigenous Kanaks and French settlers runs deep. Under colonial rule, Kanaks were confined to reserves and excluded from much of the economy, and entrenched poverty and disparities remain.
Those tensions were widely reflected in the past two referendum results, but Charles Wea, who is Kanak, said the indigenous mobilisation last year brought a result that was closer than many expected, and came as a particular shock in Paris. French president Emmanuel Macron said he had to accept the result with "humility."
Wea said he was confident the pro-independence side could rally the support needed to cross the line this time round.
"Now we need only 5,000 voices to win the referendum," he said. "With our campaign we can do it."
He paused, and said it again with more resolve: "We can do it."