New Caledonia’s referendum on independence from France has been tentatively postponed until 4 October.
The French prime minister Edouard Philippe suggested the new date after the pro-independence FLNKS movement asked for the plebiscite, which was due on 6 September, be deferred because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mr Philippe proposed the new date in a letter to the presidents of New Caledonia’s government and Congress, granting them a two-week consultation period.
Paris will then formally set the new date of the vote.
Mr Philippe however conceded that because of the health crisis, a risk remained that the timeline could not be kept.
The FLNKS leaders had wanted it to be rescheduled for either 25 October or 1 November, but a leading anti-independence politician Sonia Backes had said she wanted the September date to be kept.
The FLNKS argued Covid-19 impacted on the calendar by prompting a delay of the municipal elections by three months to late June and that they didn’t want to mix up the local election campaign with the referendum debate.
It also said that Paris would not give its official position on the consequences of a possible yes-vote until 13 July which would give little time to incorporate the policy into the campaign.
The FLNKS also pointed out that with the September date, quarantine provisions could affect the deployment of the UN observers and the more than 200 French magistrates who were scheduled to be flown to help supervise the referendum.
Currently, anyone arriving in New Caledonia must be quarantined for three weeks.
In the previous referendum, in 2018, just under 57 percent voted for the status quo.
Should voters again reject independence this year, another referendum can be called by New Caledonia’s Congress within the following two years.