New Caledonia again rejects full independence from France

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PARIS (Reuters) – The South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia voted against independence from France for the second time in as many years on Sunday, a provisional final tally showed.

FILE PHOTO: A French flag flies in the sky above the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, December 10, 2018. REUTERS / Philippe Wojazer / File Photo

A surprise “yes” would have deprived Paris of a foothold in a region where China is expanding its influence and eroded the pride of a colonial power whose reach once extended over large parts of Africa and Asia. Southeast, Caribbean and Pacific.

The “no” won 53.26% of the votes cast, a margin of victory narrower than in the 2018 election.

The result will bring relief to the government of President Emmanuel Macron, whose attention has been focused on the coronavirus pandemic in the run-up to the referendum.

“Voters had their say. They confirmed their desire to make New Caledonia part of France. As Head of State, I greet this demonstration of confidence in the Republic with a deep feeling of gratitude, ”Macron said in a televised statement.

New Caledonia became a French colony in 1853. Tensions have long been deep between the indigenous independentist Kanaks and the descendants of settlers who remain loyal to Paris.

Sunday’s referendum was the second of three authorized under the 1998 Noumea Accord, an agreement enshrined in the French constitution and which paved a 20-year path towards decolonization.

France was ready to hold a new vote within two years if that was the wish of New Caledonians, in which case both sides would have to accept the result, Macron said.

“We have two years to look to the future,” continued the president.

The island chain already enjoys a large degree of autonomy but depends heavily on France for issues such as defense and education.

The turnout was high at 85.6% of eligible voters – after a stronger-than-expected independence vote in the 2018 referendum.

New Caledonia is located approximately 1,200 km (750 miles) east of Australia and 20,000 km (12,500 miles) from Paris.

Under French colonial rule, the Kanaks were confined to reservations and excluded from much of the island’s economy. The first revolt broke out in 1878, shortly after the discovery of large nickel deposits which are today exploited by the SLN subsidiary of the French miner Eramet.

Today, its economy is supported by annual French subsidies of around 1.3 billion euros (1.5 billion dollars) and nickel deposits which would represent 25% of the world total and tourism.

However, the territory has largely cut itself off from the outside world to protect itself from the coronavirus. It has only recorded 27 cases of COVID-19.

For a third referendum to take place, a third of the New Caledonian local assembly must vote in favor of one.

Reporting by Lidia Kelly in Melbourne and Mathieu Rosemain in Paris; Written by Lidia Kelly and Richard Lough Editing by William Mallard and Angus MacSwan

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