The Pacific territory of New Caledonia voted Sunday to remain part of France, French President Emmanuel Macron announced hours after polls closed in a referendum on independence.
Macron praised the ‘responsible campaign’ run by the opposing sides, saying they had been ‘careful at all times to avoid tensions and preserve the gains of 30 years of dialogue and peace.’ The referendum was mandated under peace agreements in 1988 and 1998 between pro-independence forces mainly backed by the native Kanak community and pro-French forces largely supported by descendants of European settlers.
‘I must, first of all, express my immense pride that we have passed this historic stage,’ Macron said in an address from the Elysee Palace. ‘I also wish to say how proud I am as head of state that the majority of Caledonians chose France.’ Official results showed 43.6 per cent of voters opting for independence, with 56.4 per cent opposed.
Turnout was just over 80.6 per cent of the 174,995-strong electorate, which only included residents with a long-standing connection to the territory.
But local results varied widely in the ethnically diverse territory, where Kanaks make up some 39 per cent of the population while 27 per cent identify as Europeans.
More than 90 per cent of votes in some mainly Kanak areas were for ‘yes,’ while other communes with a mainly European population voted strongly for ‘no.’ La1ere cited police as saying that some cars had been stoned and others set on fire in some districts of the capital Noumea, marring what had been a peaceful electoral campaign.
The vote does not necessarily mark the end of independence efforts: under the 1998 agreement, there can be two further votes within the next four years.
Macron said the French government would bring the local political forces together to discuss the next steps, with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe due in the territory on Monday to start talks.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, my dear compatriots, in the political sphere there is no other way but dialogue,’ Macron said.
Pro-French political leader Philippe Michel also called for discussions, saying the results showed that the pro-French forces remained the majority ‘but at the same time support for independence remains very important in New Caledonia.’ More than ever, ‘we must sit around the table and discuss matters,’ he told La1ere.
But pro-independence politician Charles Washetine insisted his side was not giving up: ‘The option of independence remains and we will complete the process,’ he told the broadcaster.
In Paris, the right-wing Les Republicains opposition party and far-right National Rally welcomed the vote against independence, with Les Republicains leader Laurent Wauquiez hailing it as a ‘historic moment.’ New Caledonia had a total population of 269,000 - including minors - in France's 2014 census.
The territory saw several years of violence in the 1980s, ending with the peace deal of 1988 which provided for autonomy in three provinces, two with a Kanak majority.
The later 1998 agreement extended that autonomy, set the 2018 deadline for the independence vote, and recognized historic injustices against the Kanaks.
New Caledonia, which lies 1,200 kilometres east of Australia and 18,000 kilometres from Paris, now formulates its own laws, including for taxation and labour.
But Paris controls its police, defence and foreign relations and also provides some 1.5 billion US dollars every year.
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