New Caledonia votes to stay in France; boycott of separatists


NOUMEA, New Caledonia (AP) – Voters in the French island territory of New Caledonia overwhelmingly chose to stay in France on Sunday, in a referendum boycotted by pro-independence forces and closely watched in 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 have expressed dismay or resignation.

They had called for a postponement of the vote due to the pandemic and were angry at what they believed were efforts by the French government to influence the campaign. They therefore called on their supporters to stay away from the polling stations.


And they did. The official results showed that 96% of the participants chose to stay in France. Overall turnout was below 44%, barely half of those who ran in a previous independence referendum last year, where support for the breakup was 46.7%.

“Tonight, we are French and we will remain so. It is no longer negotiable, ”said Sonia Backes, president of the Southern Province region and fervent faithful.

The vote was monitored by the UN and regional powers, as part of global decolonization efforts and China’s growing influence in the region. New Caledonia, colonized by Napoleon’s nephew in the 19th century, is a vast archipelago of around 270,000 inhabitants in eastern Australia, 10 time zones ahead of Paris – and is home to a French military base.

“Tonight, France is more beautiful because New Caledonia has decided to stay,” Macron said in a nationally 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 for their departure.

Sunday’s vote was the third and final in a decades-long process aimed at easing tensions between indigenous 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 in France.

“We are taking a new step,” Macron said, calling for negotiations on new structures to manage health crises, revive the economy, improve women’s rights and protect the environment from climate change, a major concern in this. island territory.

The independence party FLNKS threatened to seek an international appeal to try to invalidate the results, and said it would not start negotiating until it had time to analyze the next steps.

“The right of the Kanak people to self-determination will not end on Sunday evening or Monday morning,” Jean-Philippe Tjibaou, son of an assassinated separatist leader, told France-Info. Speaking from a city that voted 100% for independence in the last two referendums but boycotted Sunday’s vote, he said: “We have continued the work of our elders. And our children will chase him after us.

A tropical storm warning also dampened enthusiasm for the referendum. Queues were emerging from some polling stations, as the winds lashed the palm trees lining the streets of the regional capital Noumea. But participation in others was hardly a trickle.

Campaigning and polling day were unusually quiet due to the boycott call, although the state has deployed 1,750 police and security forces in times of unrest.

As support for the ‘yes’ vote appeared to increase, the region’s first coronavirus outbreak in September turned political debate upside down. Until then, New Caledonia was one of the few virus-free places on the planet.

Indigenous groups felt they could not campaign out of respect for their dead and called for the referendum to be postponed. But pro-France groups have insisted it should take place as planned, to end uncertainty over New Caledonia’s future and bolster its economic outlook.

Independence activists have announced their refusal to participate, accusing the Parisian government of imposing the date of the referendum and of 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 at the national level – where he is expected to face a tough challenge from far-right nationalists in the April presidential election – and at the ‘international.

France is trying to consolidate its presence in the Indo-Pacific region after losing a multi-billion dollar submarine contract due to a partnership formed by Australia with the United States and the United Kingdom The project of a secretly negotiated submarine, announced in September and aimed at countering Chinese ambitions in the region, has been a blow to France.

Some countries in the region “might appreciate France’s balanced position in what might be called a Sino-American cold war,” said Caroline Gravelat of the University of New Caledonia.

Others consider that France’s role in the South Pacific is outdated.

The UN and the Pacific Islands Forum sent delegations to observe the vote. New Caledonia is one of the 17 former colonies in the world that the UN still qualifies as “non-autonomous” and intended for decolonization efforts. The rest are mainly islands administered by Great Britain or the United States.

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Angela Charlton contributed to this report from Paris.


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