Voters in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia have rejected the prospect of independence from France after a referendum on Sunday.
Government officials in Noumea reported that voter turnout one hour before closing had been 73.68 per cent, which was about 15 percentage points more than the turnout for 2014 provincial elections, the highest since 1958, and possibly an all-time record.
Residents were asked to vote “yes” or “no” in reply to the question: “Do you want New Caledonia to accede to full sovereignty and become independent?”
Official results showed 43.6 per cent of voters opting for independence, with 56.4 per cent opposed.
As French President Emmanuel Macron announced the results hours after polls closed in Sunday’s referendum, he promised a full dialogue on the region’s future.
“I’m asking everyone to turn toward the future to build tomorrow’s New Caledonia,” Mr Macron said from the presidential Elysee Palace in Paris.
“The spirit of dialogue is the sole winner.”
Pro-French political leader Philippe Michel said while results showed that pro-French forces remained the majority, support for independence remains “very important” in New Caledonia.
More than ever, “we must sit around the table and discuss matters”, he told public broadcaster La1ere.
But pro-independence politician Charles Washetine insisted his side was not giving up.
“The option of independence remains and we will complete the process,” he told La1ere.
The referendum, which comes 165 years after the south Pacific archipelago was colonised by France, was triggered by a 1998 agreement signed by France and the main local forces.
— Stefan Armbruster (@StefArmbruster) November 4, 2018
In the 1987 referendum for independence, 98 per cent voted to stay with France, but that result was likely affected by a boycott call by the pro-independence movement.
There were five main groups campaigning in Sunday’s vote.
Two called for independence in the name of dignity, the quest for freedom, and the meaning of history, while the three others supported voting “no” because France is a link between communities, and protects and guarantees prosperity.
The latest major opinion poll, by Harris Interactive for France TV, showed 66 per cent of those questioned opting for a “no” vote.
The native Kanak community, which made up 39 per cent of New Caledonia’s population in France’s 2014 census, are more favourable to independence.
The descendants of European colonists and deportees, which account for 27 per cent of the population, have tended to oppose it.
There were fears the referendum could inflame ethnic tensions.
New Caledonia had a total population of 269,000 in France’s 2014 census, but only those with long-standing links to the territory are on the electoral list.