High turnout as Pacific archipelago votes on independence from France

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Voters have turned out in exceptional numbers to decide whether the French South Pacific territory of New Caledonia should break free from the European country which claimed it in the mid-19th century.

The territory’s high commissioner estimated that close to three-quarters of New Caledonia’s registered voters had cast their ballots an hour before polls closed on Sunday evening – a far more robust turnout than in its provincial election of 2014.

Results are expected later on Sunday.

From Paris, French president Emmanuel Macron will speak about the territory’s future and its choice in a televised address.

The independence vote marked a milestone for the archipelago that lies east of Australia and has sun-kissed lagoons as well as a mining industry for nickel, a metal used in electronics manufacturing.

More than 174,000 registered voters were invited to answer the question: “Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?” At the 284 polling stations, they were given two slips of paper to choose between yes or no.

Voter Monette Saihulinwa said she opposed independence.

New Caledonia Referendum
A man casts his vote at a polling station in Noumea (AP)

Others hailed the ballot as a landmark.

“We’ve been waiting for 30 years for this vote,” said Mariola Bouyer, 34. “This vote must demonstrate that we want to live in peace, no matter our race, our roots. It’s building a country together.”

New Caledonia relies on France for its defence, law enforcement, foreign affairs, justice and education, yet has a large degree of autonomy.

New Caledonia receives about 1.3 billion euros (£1.14 billion) in French state subsidies every year, and many fear its economy would suffer if ties are severed.

The cluster of islands is home to about 270,000 people. They include the native Kanaks, about 40% of the population; people of European descent, about 27%; and others from Asian countries and Pacific islands.

The archipelago became French in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III – Napoleon’s nephew and heir – and was used for decades as a prison colony.

It became an overseas territory after the Second World War, with French citizenship granted to all Kanaks in 1957.

Most Kanaks have tended to back independence, while most descendants of European settlers have favoured keeping the French connection. Under French colonial rule, the Kanaks suffered under strict segregation policies and faced discrimination.

The referendum is the result of a process that started 30 years ago to end years of violence between those for and against separating from France.

The violence, which has claimed more than 70 lives, prompted a 1988 deal between rival loyalist and pro-independence factions. Another agreement a decade later included plans for an independence referendum.

If voters say no to independence on Sunday, the 1998 agreement allows two more self-determination referendums to be held by 2022.

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