New Caledonia rejects independence
The South Pacific islands of New Caledonia have opted to remain part of France, with voters rejecting independence in a referendum seen as a measure of support for Paris in one of its many outposts.
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe is due in the territory today (Monday) to start talks after a three-day visit to Vietnam.
Pro-French political leader Philippe Michel also called for talks, saying while the results showed pro-French sentiments remained in the majority, support for independence was “very important”.
Around 18,000km from the French mainland, New Caledonia is home to a quarter of the world’s known supplies of nickel, vital to electronics, and is a foothold for France in the Pacific Ocean amid the growing influence of China.
With a participation of nearly 80 per cent, the “no” vote stood at around 57 per cent.
Results varied widely in the ethnically diverse archipelago, where Kanaks make up around 39 per cent of the population and 27 per cent identify as European.
More than 90 per cent of votes in largely Kanak areas voted for independence but predominantly European areas backed union with France.
“The New Caledonians have chosen to remain French…it is a vote of confidence in the French republic, its future and its values,” President Emmanuel Macron said in a television address.
During a visit in May, Macron acknowledged the “pains of colonisation” and the “dignified” campaign for autonomy led by the indigenous Kanaks. Paris sought to strike a neutral tone in the vote.
Under colonial rule, the Kanaks were confined to reserves and excluded from much of the island’s economy. Fighting broke out in the mid-1980s amid anger over poverty and limited job opportunities.
A 1988 massacre in a cave on the island of Ouvéa left 19 indigenous separatists and two French soldiers dead and intensified talks on the island’s future.
Sunday’s referendum was the first auto-determination vote in a French territory since Djibouti voted for independence in 1977.
Macron said he understood the disappointment of those who wanted independence but promised liberty, equality and fraternity for all.
“The only loser is the temptation of contempt, division, violence and fear; the only winner is the process of peace and the spirit of dialogue,” the 41-year-old said.
Around 175,000 out of the 280,000 archipelago residents were eligible to vote.
New Caledonia’s economy is underpinned by French annual subsidies of around €1.3 billion, according to Paris. It enjoys a large degree of autonomy but depends on France for defence and education.
First discovered by the British explorer James Cook, the archipelago became a French colony in 1853.
Two further independence referendums can be held before 2022.
Tourism is key to New Caledonia’s economy. Picture credit: MaxPixel