By CHARLOTTE ANTOINE-PERRON
NOUMEA, New Caledonia — Voters in the French island territory of New Caledonia chose overwhelmingly Sunday to stay part of France, 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 expressed dismay, or resignation.
They had urged a delay in the vote because of the pandemic, and were angry over what they felt were French government efforts to sway the campaign. So they called on their supporters to stay away from voting stations.
And they did. Official results showed a staggering 96% of those who took part chose to stay in France. Overall turnout was less than 44% — barely half the numbers who showed up in a previous independence referendum last year, where support for breaking away was 46.7%.
“Tonight we are French, and we will stay that way. It’s no longer negotiable,” said Sonia Backes, president of the Southern Province region and a fervent loyalist.
The vote was monitored by the U.N. and regional powers, amid global efforts toward decolonization and amid growing Chinese influence in the region. New Caledonia, colonized by Napoleon’s nephew in the 19th century, is a vast archipelago of about 270,000 people east of Australia that is 10 time zones ahead of Paris — and hosts a French military base.
“Tonight France is more beautiful because New Caledonia decided to stay,” Macron said in a national 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 to leave.
Sunday’s vote was the third and last in a decades-long process aimed at settling tensions between native 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 within France.
“We are reaching a new stage,” Macron said, calling for negotiations on new structures to handle health crises, boost the economy, improve women’s rights and protect the environment from climate change — a major concern in this island territory.
Pro-independence party FLNKS threatened to seek international recourse to try to invalidate the results, and said it won’t start negotiating until it has time to analyze next steps.
“The Kanak people’s right to self-determination of the won’t end Sunday night or Monday morning,” Jean-Philippe Tjibaou, son of a slain separatist leader, told public broadcaster France-Info. Speaking from a town that voted 100% for independence in the last two referendums but boycotted Sunday’s vote, he said, “We pursued the work of our elders. And our children will pursue it after us.”
A tropical storm warning also dampened enthusiasm for the referendum. Lines snaked out of some polling stations, as winds whipped palm trees lining the streets of the regional capital Noumea. But turnout at others was barely a trickle.
The campaign and voting day were unusually calm because of the boycott call, though the state deployed 1,750 police and security forces in case of unrest.
While support for a “yes” vote seemed to be growing, the region’s first coronavirus outbreak in September threw the political debate into disarray. Until then, New Caledonia had been one of the few virus-free places left on the planet.
Indigenous groups felt they couldn’t campaign out of respect for their dead, and demanded that the referendum be postponed. But pro-France groups insisted it should take place as scheduled, to end uncertainty over New Caledonia’s future and boost its economic prospects.
Pro-independence activists announced they would refuse to take part, accusing the government in Paris of imposing the referendum date and violating neutrality by publishing a document seen as casting the consequences of independence in a negative light.
The vote to stay French is a boost for Macron both domestically — where he’s expected to face a tough challenge from far-right nationalists in April’s presidential election — and internationally.
France is trying to cement its presence in the Indo-Pacific region after it lost a multibillion-dollar submarine contract because of a partnership Australia formed with the United States and the U.K. The secretly negotiated submarine project, announced in September and aimed at countering Chinese ambitions in the region, was a huge blow to France.
Some countries in the region “could appreciate France’s balanced posture in what you could call a Chinese-American cold war,” said Caroline Gravelat of the University of New Caledonia.
Others see France’s role in South Pacific as outdated.
The U.N. and the Pacific Islands Forum sent delegations to observe the vote. New Caledonia is among 17 former colonies worldwide that the U.N. still categorizes as “non-self-governing” and slated for decolonization efforts. The others are primarily islands administered by Britain or the United States.