NOUMA, New Caledonia: In a referendum boycotted by pro-independence movements and closely monitored around the South Pacific, voters on the island of New Caledonia have chosen to remain a territory of France.
French President Emmanuel Macron lauded the result as a confirmation of France’s role in the Indo-Pacific region. “Tonight, France is more beautiful because New Caledonia decided to stay,” he said in a televised speech.
However, separatists expressed their anger at what they claimed were the French government’s efforts to influence the campaign, calling on their supporters to boycott the vote.
A tropical storm warning also dampened the voter turnout for the referendum.
According to the official results, 96 percent of those who took part voted to stay in France, but overall turnout was less than 44 percent, barely half the numbers who participated in a previous independence referendum last year, in which support for ending French rule reached 46.7 percent.
“Tonight we are French, and we will stay that way. It is no longer negotiable,” said loyalist Sonia Backes, president of the Southern Province region.
The vote, which was monitored by the UN and the Pacific Islands Forum, took place amidst the global trend towards decolonization and China’s growing influence in the region.
New Caledonia is a vast archipelago of some 270,000 people, which is located east of Australia and hosts a French military base.
The latest vote was the third and final in a long-term process aimed at settling tensions between native Kanaks wishing for independence and those loyal to France.
The state, separatists and non-separatists now have 18 months to negotiate a new status for the territory and its institutions with France.
Pro-independence party FLNKS threatened to invalidate the results of the vote in international courts, adding that it will not begin negotiating until it can analyze the next steps.
“The Kanak people’s right to self-determination will not end on Sunday night or Monday morning,” Jean-Philippe Tjibaou, son of a slain separatist leader, told public broadcaster France-Info.
While support for a vote to separate seemed to be growing, the region’s first coronavirus outbreak in September threw the political debate into disarray.
Indigenous groups felt they could not campaign, out of respect for their dead, and demanded the referendum’s postponement. But pro-France groups argued that the vote should take place as scheduled.
The vote is a boost for Macron, both domestically, where he is expected to face a tough challenge from far-right nationalists in April’s presidential election, and internationally.