NOUMEA, New Caledonia
Voters in the French island territory of New Caledonia overwhelmingly chose to stay in France on Sunday, in a referendum boycotted by pro-independence forces and closely watched around the South Pacific.
French President Emmanuel Macron hailed the result as a resounding confirmation of France’s role in the Indo-Pacific and announced negotiations on the territory’s future status. Separatist activists have expressed disappointment or resignation.
They had called for a postponement of the vote due to the pandemic and were angry at what they said were efforts by the French government to influence the campaign. They therefore called on their supporters to stay away from the polling stations.
And they did. The official results showed that 96% of the participants chose to stay in France. Overall turnout was only 42%, less than half of those who ran in a previous independence referendum last year, where support for the breakup was 46.7% .
“Tonight, we are French and we will remain so. It is no longer negotiable, ”said Sonia Backes, president of the Southern Province region and fervent faithful.
The vote was monitored by the UN and regional powers, as part of global decolonization efforts and China’s growing influence in the region. New Caledonia, colonized by Napoleon’s nephew in the 19th century, is a vast archipelago of around 270,000 inhabitants in eastern Australia, 10 time zones ahead of Paris – and is home to a French military base.
“Tonight, France is more beautiful because New Caledonia has decided to stay,” Macron said in a nationally televised address.
He did not address the boycott. Noting that the electorate “remains deeply divided”, Macron pledged “respect for all Caledonians”, including those who voted for the breakup.
Sunday’s vote was the third and final in a decades-long process of decolonization that stemmed from the violence of 1988, which led the French government to grant New Caledonia broad autonomy under the ‘Noumea Accord. The process aimed to ease tensions between indigenous Kanaks seeking independence and those who want the territory to remain part of France.
The process does not end with the last referendum. The state, separatists and non-separatists now have 18 months to negotiate a new status for the territory and its institutions in France.
“We are taking a new step,” Macron said, calling for negotiations on new structures to manage health crises, revive the economy, improve women’s rights and protect the environment from climate change, a major concern in this. island territory.
A tropical storm warning also dampened enthusiasm for the vote. Queues were emerging from some polling stations, as the winds lashed the palm trees lining the streets of the regional capital Noumea. But participation in others was hardly a trickle.
The question put to the inhabitants of the 307 polling stations in the archipelago was: “Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?” Masks and social distancing measures were required.
The campaign and polling day were unusually quiet due to the boycott call.
In the first referendum of this type in 2018, 43.6% of voters supported independence and 46.7% supported it in a second vote held in 2020. While support for the “yes” vote seemed increase, the region’s first coronavirus outbreak in September threw the political debate into disarray. Until then, New Caledonia was one of the few virus-free places on the planet.
In November, the archipelago had reported 271 deaths from COVID-19, and the regional Senate decreed one year of traditional Kanak mourning. Independence activists felt they could not campaign out of respect for their dead and called for the referendum to be postponed.
But pro-France groups have insisted the vote should take place as scheduled to end uncertainty over New Caledonia’s future and boost its economic outlook. Independence activists have announced their refusal to participate, accusing the Parisian government of imposing the date of the referendum and of violating neutrality by publishing a document considered to cast the consequences of independence in a negative light.
France is trying to consolidate its presence in the Indo-Pacific region after losing a multi-billion dollar submarine contract due to a partnership formed by Australia with the United States and the United Kingdom The project secretly negotiated submarine, announced in September and aimed at countering Chinese ambitions in the region, has been a blow to France. New Caledonia is home to one of two French military bases in the Pacific.
Macron said the vote sent an important message to the Indo-Pacific region as it undergoes a “recomposition” and faces “high tensions”.
The UN supported the process of decolonizing New Caledonia and sent election observers to monitor Sunday’s vote. The Pacific Islands Forum also sent a delegation to observe the vote.