New Caledonia rejects independence from France in boycotted vote
New Caledonia rejects independence from France in boycotted vote
Independentists demonstrate as they hold Kanak flags the morning after the self determination referendum in Noumea, in the French South Pacific territory of New Caledonia on Monday. — AFP

NOUMEA: Islanders on the Pacific territory of New Caledonia voted overwhelmingly on Sunday to remain part of France in a third referendum that was boycotted by pro-independence groups, raising fears of new tensions.

With all ballots counted, 96.49 percent were against independence, while only 3.51 percent were in favour, with turnout a mere 43.90 percent, results from the islands’ high commission showed.

“Tonight France is more beautiful because New Caledonia has decided to stay part of it,” President Emmanuel Macron said in a recorded video message that made no direct mention of the boycott.

Police reinforcements have been sent to the territory known as “the pebble”, which is of strategic importance to France and part of a wider tussle for influence in the Pacific between Western countries and China.

The boycott and crushing nature of the “No” vote will raise fears of protests as well as questions about the democratic legitimacy of the referendum on the archipelago, 2,000 kilometres (1,250 miles) east of Australia.

Macron noted “the high abstention rates” but said France could be “proud” of a more than 30-year process designed to settle the islands’ status under which residents were asked in three separate referendums if they wished to break away.

Having rejected independence in 2018 and then again last year, inhabitants were called on Sunday to answer one last time whether they wanted New Caledonia “to accede to full sovereignty and become independent”.

Pro-independence campaigners boycotted the vote, saying they wanted it postponed to September because “a fair campaign” was impossible with high coronavirus infection numbers.

The result could exacerbate ethnic tensions, with the poorer indigenous Kanak community who generally favour independence staying away from polling booths on Sunday. The wealthier white community turned out in large numbers.

“We have decided in our souls and consciences to remain French,” Sonia Backes, a senior pro-France figure, told supporters on Sunday evening.

“The sad dreams of an independence at the cost of ruin, of exclusion and misery have crashed on the reef of our pioneering spirit, our resilience and our love for our own land,” she added.

The main indigenous pro-independence movement, the FLNKS, had called the government’s insistence on going ahead with the referendum “a declaration of war”.

Kanaks had also been called by their traditional community leaders to observe a day’s mourning on Sunday for those killed by the coronavirus.

Around 2,000 police and troops were deployed for the vote, which appeared to have passed off largely without incident except for an attempted roadblock on an outlying island.

At stake in the vote was one of France’s biggest overseas territories which is home to about 10 percent of the world’s reserves of nickel, which is used to make stainless steel, batteries and mobile phones.

The territory is also a key part of France’s claim of being a Pacific power, with New Caledonia granting France rights to the surrounding ocean, as well as serving as a military staging post.

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