Residents in New Caledonia, an archipelago in the strategic waters of the Pacific, have voted overwhelmingly to remain a French territory, in a victory for French President Emmanuel Macron.
More than 96% voted against independence from France, state-run AFP news agency reported.
Turnout was low, however, after indigenous pro-independence leaders called to boycott the referendum, which meant to end a three-decade process of decolonisation. They are expected to contest the outcome.
Macron called to “respect” the results in a broadcast address, saying the goal now is to build a “common project” focused on reducing inequalities. France has increased its economic and military engagement in the Pacific as part of its effort to serve as a balance between rivals China and the US. New Caledonia, with a population of less than 300,000, is central to Macron’s strategy because it serves as France’s regional military headquarters and gives it access to the Pacific Ocean at a time when tensions with China are mounting.
Had the vote backfired against France, its standing in the region would have been at risk.
In the 1988 Noumea Accord, France agreed on up to three independence referendums by October 2022. In June, the French government announced the final one was supposed to be held on December 12.
While support for independence has risen to 47% in 2020 from 43% two years earlier, voter turnout stood at 41.6% at 5 pm local time — a drop from more than 70% in previous polls in 2020 and 2018. But Kanak independence leaders called for “non-participation” after authorities ignored their request to delay the poll until 2022 because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on their community.