Residents of the Pacific territory of New Caledonia have voted
overwhelmingly to remain part of France in a third referendum though it was boycotted by pro-independence groups, according to media reports.
Security forces have been sent to the territory known as “the pebble”, which is of strategic importance to France and is part of a wider tussle for influence in the Pacific between Western countries and China.
According to local television channel NC la 1ere, with 90.23 percent of ballots counted, 96.32 percent of voters had voted “No” to independence in a result that will raise fears of unrest about the legitimacy of the process.
French President Emmanuel Macron assured that New Caledonia will remain French. “Caledonians have chosen to remain French. They decided that freely,” Macron remarked during a televised address.
“We can’t ignore that the electorate remained deeply divided over the years … A period of transition is now starting.” The archipelago of about 185,000 voters, 2,000 kilometres east of Australia, was granted three independence referendums under a 1988 deal aimed at easing tensions on the islands.
Having rejected a breakaway from France in 2018 and then again last year, the inhabitants were asked one last chance: “Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?”
Pro-independence campaigners boycotted the poll, saying they wanted it postponed to September because “a fair campaign” was impossible with high number of coronavirus infections.
The result could ignite ethnic tensions, with the poorer indigenous Kanak community generally favouring independence over the wealthier white community.
The main indigenous pro-independence movement, the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS), had called the government’s insistence on going ahead with the referendum “a declaration of war”.
“This referendum does not make too much sense because half the population has decided not to vote,” Cathy, a bookseller who gave only her first name, told an international news agency at a polling booth in the capital Noumea.
“I came out of civic-mindedness, what interests me is the society we are going to build afterwards,” she told AFP. One of five island territories spanning the Indo-Pacific held by France, New Caledonia is the centrepiece of Macron’s plan to increase its influence in the Pacific.