New Caledonia's Kanak secessionists have called for "non-participation" in a third and final referendum on independence, citing the impact of Covid-19 on voter turnout.
This week, the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front expressed its views on the holding of a third referendum on New Caledonia's future.
The FLNKS, which is an umbrella political organisation that unites several pro-independence parties, is critical of the French government for wanting to "maintain the third and final referendum at all costs."
On Thursday, the group called on voters to stay away from the polls slated for 12 December asking for it to be postponed until 2022 because of the Covid-19 epidemic.
Loyalists, meanwhile, have retaliated by resuming their campaign to remain part of France, as Covid restrictions were eased last week.
Three strikes, you're out
New Caledonia has already held two referenda on independence in the past three years, with the results of both polls returning a tight, but solid, "Non" to secession from France.
The process is part of the Nouméa Accord which lays out the plans for a gradual decolonisation of the country. Included within the agreement is that New Caledonia can hold a maximum of three referenda to decide on remaining or seceding from Paris.
December's vote is New Caledonia's third and final opportunity to decide on French rule over the territory. However, the country's strategic importance has increased exponentially of late, as geopolitical priorities shift towards the Indo-Pacific region.
2022 French elections cast a shadow Nouméa debate
According to the FLNKS, the French government is "stubbornly trying to give priority to the presidential campaign with the sole aim of settling the Nouméa Accord during [President Macron's] five-year term."
Indeed, Macron wants to get closure New Caledonia's sovereignty before next April's presidential elections in France to avoid the territory's health crisis turning into a political crisis.
The statement was made a day after Sébastien Lecornu, France's Overseas Minister, paid a visit to New Caledonia where the pro-independence coalition reiterated their call for the vote to be postponed.
For the indigenous Kanak community, the campaign will not be fair. To date the debates have been focused on the support of France during the Covid crisis and secessionists maintain campaigning will be difficult due to the pandemic.
Out of the country's 280,000 inhabitants, only 50% have been fully vaccinated. The latest spike of the Delta variant of Covid has caused at least 245 deaths since September, which saw the reintroduction of a strict lockdown across the territory that was only eased in the past week.
The current health situation in New Caledonia is leading Paris to question whether the referendum should indeed be postponed.
New Caledonia's Pandora's box
However, if the vote is delayed it risks unleashing a political maelstrom.
The coronavirus pandemic has shown that without France, without vaccines and without the French health reservists deployed in Nouméa, the Covid situation would be catastrophic for the country. This makes it difficult for the independence movement to convince the population that full secession is the way forward.
Activists within the pro-independence camp are already talking about pushing the vote to September 2022, well after the French presidential elections. This would also allow time for the FLNKS to re-orientate the debate away from Covid-19 and back to the core issues of full economic and political sovereignty.
New Caledonia remains a deeply divided country, both politcally and geographically. The 2020 result has highlighted the persistent divide between the North and East who have chosen independence. The Southern Province, the West and Greater Nouméa have favoured the No option - to remain under French control.
Whatever the decision on holding the territory's referendum this December, the outcome will be highly politicised by both loyalist and secessionist factions alike.