The French territory of New Caledonia has voted against independence in a referendum, provisional results show, amid a big drop in turnout due to a boycott of the vote by the independence movement.
The indigenous Kanak population, who largely favour independence, had called for non-participation in the referendum because they are in a 12-month mourning period following a September surge in coronavirus infections.
Provisional results published by French authorities showed support for a “no” to independence was at 96.5 per cent while turnout stood at 43.9 per cent.
Sunday’s vote – the third and, for the time being, final ballot on the issue – follows two previous polls in 2018 and 2020 in which the “no” vote got 57 per cent and 53 per cent respectively.
“The Caledonians have chosen to remain French. They decided that freely,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in a televised address.
“We can’t ignore that the electorate remained deeply divided over the years… A period of transition is now starting,” he added.
New Caledonia’s congress president Roch Wamytan, a pro-independence leader, said he regretted the French government had rejected their call to postpone the third referendum to September 2022 out of respect for local mourning customs.
“This referendum, for us, is not the third referendum. We consider that there are only two legitimate referendums – 2018 and 2020. This referendum is the referendum of the French state, not ours,” he said on Franceinfo radio.
Analysts fear a “no” vote will anger independence supporters, creating instability.
“The worst of scenarios? A ‘no’ vote which bans independence but whose legitimacy is rejected by the Kanaks via a massive abstention rate motivated by Paris’ refusal to postpone the vote,” Francois Heisbourg, an analyst for the IISS think-tank said on Twitter.
One of five island territories spanning the Pacific held by France, New Caledonia is the centrepiece of Mr Macron’s plan to increase its influence in the region.
Sunday’s vote is the third prescribed by a deal hammered out a decade after talks on the island’s future began in 1988, and which called for a series of independence referendums.
Fighting erupted in the 1980s in the nickel-rich territory, 1200km east of Australia and 20,000km from France, between supporters of independence and those who wanted to stay French.