French police evacuated workers from a nickel plant operated by Brazilian mining giant Vale on the French Pacific island of New Caledonia on Thursday after pro-independence activists attempted to storm the facility to prevent its sale.

Vale's planned sale of the plant to a French-backed consortium has reignited tensions on the tropical island between supporters and opponents of independence from France.

For days protesters slamming the "stranglehold of multinationals" on the island's resources -- New Caledonia boasts one quarter of the world's known nickel reserves -- have been blocking roads leading to the Vale plant.

The situation escalated Thursday with the police "forced to use their weapons to repel two pickups which were driven at gendarmes," Paris's high commissioner to the island said in a statement.

An administrative building was set alight and part of the property was damaged, the statement added.

France Info TV footage showed the entrance to the facility shrouded in clouds of tear gas as gendarmes in armoured vehicles attempted to prevent activists reaching the high-security plant.

No injuries were reported.

Vale's nickel plant on the French Pacific island of New Caledonia has become a source of tension
Vale's nickel plant on the French Pacific island of New Caledonia has become a source of tension AFP / Fred PAYET

An island of around 270,000 inhabitants located about 2,000 kilometres (1,250) miles east of Australia, New Caledonia has been a French territory since 1853 but enjoys a large degree of autonomy.

The clashes come a little over two months after indigenous Kanaks narrowly lost a referendum on independence from France to the loyalist camp, made up of mainly of people of European origin.

Vale wants to sell the nickel and cobalt plant, which accounts for 3,000 direct and indirect jobs, to a consortium of Caledonian and international buyers led by swiss-based commodities trader Trafigura.

The pro-independence camp had wanted a Caledonian-Korean consortium that promised to keep a majority stake in the islanders' hands to take it over instead but the consortium withdrew its offer.

New Caledonia has a long history of ethnic tensions between Kanaks and Europeans.

Clashes in the 1980s culminated in a hostage-taking by Kanak separatists in 1988, in which 19 hostage-takers and six French police officers were killed.

A landmark deal between France and opponents and supporters of independence in 1988 granted the islands more autonomy and allowed referendums over independence.

October's referendum was the second of two, both of which resulted in wins for the "No" camp. Another referendum is set to be held in 2022.