As New Caledonia prepares for the second round of the French presidential and legislative elections, voters are more focussed on a poll due to take place next year.
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25 Apr 2017 - 6:53 PM  UPDATED 26 Apr 2017 - 6:23 AM

More than 160 years after the Pacific territory was claimed by the French, Caledonians will take part in an independence referendum.

The results from the weekend's French presidential poll are telling, with the majority of votes cast for candidates who say they will respect the referendum outcome but oppose independence.

New Caledonia is a divided community between the minority pro-independence Kanaks and the majority non-Indigenous people wanting to stay French, with lifestyle unparalleled in the South Pacific islands.

A symbol of reconciliation in Noumea is the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, bearing the tribal name of assassinated Kanak independence leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou. 

"We are an act of reconciliation," said Ashley Vindin, secretary-general of the Tjibaou Cultural Centre.

"The Tjibaou cultural centre was built by the French state to get people of New Caledonia to choose a better way of living in peace."

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The first votes have been cast in France's tense presidential election some 16,000 kilometres from Paris in the overseas territory of New Caledonia.

Jean-Marie Tjibaou was among dozens killed in political violence 30 years ago, and that uprising paved the way for the Matignon and Noumea Accords that underpin next year's independence referendum. 

"We were the first people here on this land, New Caledonia, we have been colonised by a European power, France, and right now we are a people without a state," said Roch Wamytan, an long time independence activist, president of the Union Calédonienne-FLNKS and signatory to the Noumea Accord.

The kanaks have lived in New Caledonia for about 3,500 years and, according to the most recent census, form around 40 per cent of the population.

The UN has listed New Caledonia for decolonisation and a team is currently in the country examining preparations for the referendum.

Both remaining contenders for the French presidency, Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, say they will respect the referendum process but they oppose independence.

Watch: I want to become your president, says Macron

Veteran politician and opponent of independence Philippe Gomès, a current member of the French parliament for his Caledonie Ensemble party, said: "Whatever the president thinks, what's important is what the Caledonian people think, and it's them that will decide the independence of New Caledonia."

This strategic foothold in the Pacific gives France up to a quarter of the world's nickel reserves and a vast ocean territory.

In recent years, mining has slumped and France has been forced to hand out hundreds of millions of euros in government subsidies to New Caledonia.

Philippe Gomès. Photo credit: Stefan Armbruster SBS

"For two francs spent here, one franc is brought in by the Caledonians, and one is brought by the state, so if the question is, '[is] the independence economically and financially viable?', the clear answer is 'no'. No question,' Mr Gomes said.

Colonialism disposed Kanaks of their lands, their culture, their language, and has left a legacy of economic and social disadvantage.

Under the accords, the French government was supposed to redress that imbalance as part of the independence process, but in thirty years is still well short of the mark.

A century-and-a-half after the French arrived, the kanaks are impatient for change.

"What I'm saying, we've got to do it [independence]," said Mr Wamytan.

"If we hesitate all the time because we're not ready, then we'll never be ready."

Major obstacles remain to be overcome for the referendum, including who is eligible to vote and the exact wording of the question.

The deadline is November 2018.

Wamytan. Photo credit: Stefan Armbruster SBS