New Caledonians vote to stay French in tense referendum

The French Pacific territory of New Caledonia voted in an independence referendum on Sunday to remain part of France in what President Emmanuel Macron welcomed as a “historic step”.

More than 80 per cent of the nearly 175,000 registered voters cast ballots despite a call to boycott the poll by some leaders of indigenous Kanak separatist groups. Some 56.4 per cent voted to stay French and 43.6 for independence.

Mr Macron said he was “proud that the majority of Caledonians have chosen France,” but separatist leaders also welcomed the result as a victory because the vote for independence was higher than predicted by opinion polls.

Tensions had risen ahead of the vote and more than 1,000 gendarmes were deployed to maintain order. The carrying of firearms and the sale of alcohol were banned during the weekend.

Political leaders warned of possible violence by disappointed Kanak youths as several cars were burned in the hours following the announcement of the result.

The vote in the archipelago east of Australia polarised its nearly 270,000 inhabitants along ethnic lines, pitting indigenous Kanaks who mostly favoured independence against white and south-east Asian settlers.

About 40 per cent of the population are indigenous and 27 per cent are ethnic European. Most of the rest are of Polynesian and Indonesian origin.

Kanaks are expected to keep pushing for independence and there could be up to two more referenda within the next few years.

The vote this year was a condition of a 1988 agreement between separatists and the government that ended four years of violent unrest culminating in the killings of 25 people during a hostage crisis.

Laurent Wauquiez, leader of the opposition centre-Right party, The Republicans, welcomed the result and quoted General de Gaulle, who told New Caledonians 54 years ago: “You have a French role to play in this part of the world. You are a piece of France, you are Austral France.”

Like the far-Right leader, Marine Le Pen, Mr Wauquiez had criticised Mr Macron for remaining officially neutral rather than joining the ‘remain’ campaign.

The far-Left party, France Unbowed, said the outcome was “a profound disappointment for all those who believe in the need for full sovereignty of the peoples of the archipelago.”