Voters in the French island territory of New Caledonia have voted overwhelmingly to stay part of France, in a referendum boycotted by pro-independence forces and closely watched around the South Pacific.
French President Emmanuel Macron hailed the result as a resounding confirmation of France’s role in the Indo-Pacific, and announced negotiations on the territory’s future status. Separatist activists expressed disappointment or resignation.
They had urged a delay in the vote because of the pandemic, and were angry over what they said were French government efforts to sway the campaign. So they called on their supporters to stay away from voting stations.
And they did. Official results showed 96% of those who took part chose to stay in France. Overall turnout was just 42% — less than half the numbers who showed up in a previous independence referendum last year, where support for breaking away was 46.7%.
The vote was monitored by the UN and regional powers, amid global efforts towards decolonisation and growing Chinese influence in the region. New Caledonia, colonised by Napoleon’s nephew in the 19th century, is a vast archipelago of about 270,000 people east of Australia that is 10 time zones ahead of Paris — and hosts a French military base.
“Tonight France is more beautiful because New Caledonia decided to stay,” President Macron said in a national televised address.
He did not address the boycott. Noting that the electorate “remains deeply divided”, he pledged “respect for all Caledonians”, including those who voted to break away.
The process does not end with the referendum. The state, separatists and non-separatists now have 18 months to negotiate a new status for the territory and its institutions within France.
“We are reaching a new stage,” Mr Macron said, calling for negotiations on new structures to handle health crises, boost the economy, improve women’s rights and protect the environment from climate change — a major concern in this island territory.
A tropical storm warning also dampened enthusiasm for the vote. Lines snaked out of some polling stations, as winds whipped palm trees lining the streets of the regional capital, Noumea. But turnout at others was barely a trickle.
The question put to people in the archipelago’s 307 voting stations was: “Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?” Masks and social distancing measures were required.
The campaign and voting day were unusually calm because of the boycott.
By November, the archipelago had reported 271 Covid-19 deaths, and the regional senate decreed a year of traditional Kanak mourning. Independence activists felt they could not campaign out of respect for their dead, and demanded that the referendum be postponed.
But pro-France groups insisted the vote should take place as scheduled to end uncertainty over New Caledonia’s future and to boost its economic prospects. Pro-independence activists announced they would refuse to take part, accusing the government in Paris of imposing the referendum date and violating neutrality by publishing a document seen as casting the consequences of independence in a negative light.
Mr Macron said the vote sent an important message to the Indo-Pacific region while it undergoes “recomposition” and faces “strong tensions”.
The UN has supported New Caledonia’s decolonisation process and sent electoral observers to monitor Sunday’s vote. The Pacific Islands Forum also sent a delegation to observe the poll.