New Caledonia rejects independence, will stay part of France

Majority of voters choose to remain part of France, instead of backing independence, in second of three possible referendums.

A woman points to a voting notebook before voting in Noumea, New Caledonia [Mathurin Derel/AP Photo] (AP)

People in the southern Pacific French territory of New Caledonia have once more voted to stay with France, narrowly rejecting independence in a tightly-fought referendum.

With all ballots tallied from the territory’s 304 polling stations, the “No” vote on Sunday won with 53.26 percent.

Turnout was reported to be very high in the second of three possible referendums on independence, at roughly 80 percent of the
180,000 New Caledonians eligible to vote.

By refusing independence, the territory of 273,000 people will keep generous subsidies from France, which provides $1.5bn in financial support annually.

French President Emmanuel Macron, in a speech from the Elysee palace, welcomed the result with a “deep feeling of gratitude”.

It was the second time New Caledonia held such a referendum. Two years ago, almost 57 percent of voters had also rejected independence. A third referendum may be possible in 2022 if a third of the local assembly votes in favour.

New Caledonia was colonised by France in the mid-19th century and won greater autonomy and the right to hold up to three referendums on its political status under the Noumea Accord, signed between French and local leaders in 1998.

The agreement followed a 1988 peace deal that ended decades of conflict between the Indigenous Kanak people and the descendants of European settlers known as the Caldoches. Despite the Noumea Accord’s promise of a “common destiny” for all citizens, Kanaks, who comprise about 39 percent of the population, still experience higher levels of unemployment and poverty, as well as lower achievement in higher education.

A volunteer empties ballots box in a voting station of Noumea, New Caledonia [Mathurin Derel/AP Photo] (AP)

In the 2018 referendum, the vast majority of those who voted for independence were Kanak, while those who supported continuing ties with France were either of European descent or from other non-Indigenous minority groups.

For the pro-independence campaigners, full sovereignty would have meant decolonisation, emancipation, reducing inequality, and their right to decide the future of the islands, including realigning their political and cultural allegiances to the wider community of Pacific Islands states.

The loyalists, however, say they are proud of their French heritage and say their high standards of living, as well as the good public services on the archipelago, are in large part due to French subsidies.