Mon, Nov 05, 2018 - Page 1 News List

New Caledonians vote in plebiscite to stay part of France

PRIDE:Emmanuel Macron, who had warned of China’s interest in an independent New Caledonia, said the result showed confidence in the French republic

AFP, NOUMEA

A man votes yesterday at a polling station in Noumea as New Caledonia held a referendum on whether to become independent from France.

Photo: AP

The Pacific islands of New Caledonia yesterday voted to remain part of France in an independence referendum that showed support for Paris in one of its many far-flung but strategic outposts.

New Caledonia is home to a quarter of the world’s known supplies of nickel — a vital electronics component — and is a foothold for France in the Pacific where China is increasing its influence.

On the final count, 56.4 percent of voters rejected the proposition that New Caledonia become independent, a clear, but smaller-than-expected victory for loyalists.

French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his “immense pride that we have taken this historic step together” in a televised address to the nation, adding that it was “a sign of confidence in the French republic, in its future and its values.”

Turnout was high for the vote, at more than 80 percent, but there are fears the referendum could inflame tensions between indigenous Kanak people, who tend to favor independence, and the white population, which has settled since France annexed the islands in 1853.

Several cars were burned and a couple of incidents of stone-throwing were reported late yesterday, local authorities said, but the vote was otherwise peaceful.

Tensions in New Caledonia boiled over into ethnic strife in the 1980s, which claimed more than 70 lives. It led to the 1998 Noumea Accord, which paved the way for a steady devolution of powers, as well as yesterday’s referendum and possibly two others before 2022.

“The Kanaks have become aware that they need to show their determination to be free at last,” Alosio Sako, head of the pro-independence movement FLNKS, said after the results were announced.

Polls had forecast a bigger victory — of 63 to 75 percent — for the “no” campaign.

“We’re a short step away from victory and there are still two votes to come,” Sako added, referring to the other two referendums possible under the accord.

Macron had largely stayed clear of the campaign in New Caledonia, but during a visit to Noumea in May, he said that “France would be less beautiful” without the territory.

He also raised concerns over increasing Chinese influence in the Pacific, saying Beijing was “building its hegemony step by step” in the Pacific — suggesting that an independent New Caledonia could be Beijing’s next target.

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