Initial results put no vote at 56.9%, as Macron says it’s ‘vote of confidence’ in French values
The South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia has voted against independence from France in a long-awaited referendum that capped a 30-year long decolonisation process.
Based on provisional results and with a participation rate of nearly 80%, the no vote stood at 56.9% around 1pm GMT, local TV station NC La 1ère reported on its website.
“The New Caledonians have chosen to remain French … It is a vote of confidence in the French republic, its future and its values,” President Emmanuel Macron said in a speech on French television.
The referendum was the first auto-determination vote to be held in a French territory since Djibouti in the Horn of Africa voted for independence in 1977.
Voters in the largely self-governing territory had been asked the question: “Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?”
Macron said he understood the disappointment of those who wanted independence, but added that the French state would ensure liberty, equality and fraternity for everyone.
Tensions have long run deep between pro-independence indigenous Kanaks and descendants of colonial settlers who remain loyal to Paris.
Over the past decade, relations between the two groups have improved markedly, but the no vote outcome was well below some early polls, which could encourage nationalists to try for a new referendum in coming years.
During a visit to the archipelago in May, Macron acknowledged the “pains of colonisation” and saluted the “dignified” campaign for autonomy led by the Kanaks. He and his administration sought to strike a neutral tone on the vote.
New Caledonia’s economy is underpinned by French annual subsidies of some €1.3 billion ($US1.48 billion), nickel deposits that are estimated to represent 25% of the world’s total, and tourism.
It enjoys a large degree of autonomy but depends heavily on France for matters such as defence and education. Its position gives France a foothold in the Indo-Pacific region where China is expanding its presence.
The New Caledonia archipelago lies more than 16,700 km (10,377 miles) from France. It became a French colony in 1853.
Under colonial rule the Kanaks were confined to reserves and excluded from much of the island’s economy. Fighting broke out in the mid-1980s amid festering anger over poverty and poor job opportunities.
A 1988 massacre in a cave on the island of Ouvéa left 19 indigenous separatists and two French soldiers dead and intensified talks on the island’s future. A 1998 deal provided for a referendum on independence to be held by the end of 2018.
Under the terms of that deal, in the event of a no vote, two further referendums can be held before 2022.