New Caledonia, a French overseas territory made up of several islands in the Pacific Ocean, is due to hold a third vote on independence on December 12. However, several indigenous independence parties have called for it to be delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In September, local authorities called for a 12-month mourning period after hundreds of members of the Kanak community died from COVID-19.
But in November, the French High Commissioner confirmed the vote would go ahead.
Now opposition leaders in New Caledonia – a French archipelago since 1853 – have written a four-page letter to the French President and called on Paris to show “compassion” and “common sense”.
The letter says: “We hoped that the French government, despite 168 years of colonisation, would for once show humanity, compassion, intelligence, respect and common sense.
“We hoped that the French government would act in the spirit of consensus of the Nouméa Accord, in the spirit of its preamble.
“We hoped… and we were wrong.”
The Nouméa Accord was signed in 1998 and guaranteed three referendums on independence.
Support for the pro-independence movement has gradually increased in recent years – and fell narrowly short of a victory in 2020.
In 2018, 43.3 percent of people voted in favour of breaking free from France.
Two years later, support increased to 46.7 percent – just shy of the 50 percent required.
Many now feel the coronavirus pandemic will stop momentum for independence in its tracks as people have not been able to go out and campaign due to the pandemic.
Coronavirus cases in the region went from zero at the start of September to more than 10,000 six weeks later.
Lockdown measures were then introduced, including curfews and a ban on gatherings of more than five people.
The scathing letter added “the French government is deluding itself” in thinking “it can build a sustainable institutional future for New Caledonia by disregarding the word of the political and customary representatives of the Kanak people”.
The letter concluded with a stark warning to the French President.
It says: “Be careful that by denying once again, once more, once too many times, the right of the Kanak people to independence, you take the risk that these people get tired of discussing and negotiating with you.”
It adds: “To President Macron and his government, we say that we don’t wish to break off relations with France, we only wish to change them.
“But if we have to choose between freedom and these relations, we will choose freedom.”
France’s Overseas Minister Sébastien Lecornu travelled to New Caledonia last month and reiterated the vote should take place next month.
He insisted people could exercise their right to boycott if they wished to do so.
Mr Lecornu insisted “non-participation is a right in democracy”.
New Caledonia is home to around 270,000 people and is located about 1,250 miles east of Australia.