NOUMEA – A majority of voters in New Caledonia, an archipelago in the South Pacific, chose to be part of France instead of supporting independence on Sunday, in a referendum that marked a pivotal moment in a decolonization effort of three decades.
In a televised address from Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron hailed “an expression of confidence in the Republic with a deep sense of gratitude … and modesty”.
Macron promised the separatist supporters “it is with you, all together, that we will build New Caledonia tomorrow”.
He praised the “success” of the vote and called on the inhabitants of New Caledonia to “look to the future”.
The Foreign Ministry said the results show that 53.3% of voters who took part in Sunday’s referendum chose to maintain ties with France, while 46.7% support independence.
The vote was marked by a very high turnout. More than 85% of voters had voted an hour before the polls closed, according to the Foreign Ministry.
Some polling stations in Noumea, the capital, closed an hour late as people still waited in long lines to vote at the scheduled closing time.
Sunday’s independence referendum was among the last stages of plans initiated in 1988 to settle tensions on the archipelago between indigenous Kanaks seeking independence and residents willing to stay in France. The South Pacific archipelago has been part of France since 1853.
Two years ago, 56.4% of voters who took part in a similar referendum chose to keep the archipelago’s links with Paris.
“Today is not a day like any other. Everyone woke up with the will to speak up (by voting). It’s a historic day, ”Robert Wayaridri, 60, told The Associated Press.
Corine Florentin, born in Noumea 52 years ago, said she voted against independence because she wanted to “stay French”.
“We can live together, all races combined, and design our common future,” she said.
Guillaume Paul, an 18-year-old student at the University of New Caledonia, also voted “no” because he wants the archipelago to keep its links with France.
“What would become of the country if it were independent? There is a real danger that without the funding provided by France, the university will disappear, ”he declared.
But Joachim Neimbo, 22, was in favor of independence.
“We want the recognition of our identity, of our culture. I think we are capable of managing ourselves, ”he said.
Taguy Wayenece, 25, also voted “yes” to independence.
“We have to go back to tradition, work in the fields, stay with the tribe. Modern life is too complicated for us, ”he said.
The archipelago now has 270,000 inhabitants, including both Kanaks, who once suffered from strict segregation policies and widespread discrimination, and descendants of European colonizers.
New Caledonia 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 World War II, with French citizenship granted to all Kanaks in 1957.
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