Pacific Islands

New Caledonia votes to remain a French territory

Published : December 13, 2021 13:49 IST

Independentists demonstrate as they hold Kanak flags the morning after the self determination referendum in Noumea, in the French South Pacific territory of New Caledonia on December 13, 2021. Photo: Theo Rouby / AFP

Over 90 per cent chose to stay part of France but indigenous groups slammed the decision to hold a referendum amid the pandemic.

Voters in the French island territory of New Caledonia chose overwhelmingly on December 12 to stay part of France, in a referendum boycotted by pro-independence groups. With three-quarters of the ballots counted, 91 per cent voted in favor of remaining as part of France, according to regional officials, after a turnout of 41 per cent. French President Emmanuel Macron hailed the result as a resounding confirmation of France's role in the Indo-Pacific, and said "a period of transition" would begin in the wake of the vote. "We must now build a common project, while recognizing and respecting the dignity of everyone," he said.

New Caledonians took part in the referendum in the knowledge it would be the third and last of its kind allowed on the issue under a 1998 deal with Paris. Pro-independence campaigners urged supporters to boycott the vote after saying it would not be fair because of COVID-19 restrictions complicating their campaign.

What are the main issues behind the poll?

France has had a major presence in the Indo-Pacific ever since Napoleon III colonized New Caledonia in 1853. But relations between New Caledonia and Paris have become more strained of late, with indigenous groups angered by France's decision to arrange the referendum during the coronavirus pandemic.

New Caledonia's economy is also tied to China, with experts thinking that the Asian superpower could gain an even greater influence in the region with formal independence. China is already the single biggest client for New Caledonia's vast nickel reserves. Other archipelagos in the region including Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea have strengthened their links with China in recent years.

Why are separatists angry?

Pro-independence leaders appealed to France's highest administrative court to postpone December 12's poll, saying that the latest wave of coronavirus pandemic restrictions impaired their campaigning. Melanesian Spearhead Group Secretariat (MSG) director George Hoa'au called on member states not to recognize the result as the situation did not allow for a free and fair vote. The main indigenous pro-independence movement, FLNKS, even called the government's decision to press on with the referendum a "declaration of war," raising fears of violence seen 30 years ago on the island chain.

Since the Delta variant was detected on the archipelago of over 200 islands last September, 300 people have died, many from the Kanak indigenous community. Rather than a fast and efficient burial, many New Caledonians continue with their customary mourning ceremonies that Hoa'au said are "the most sacred in Melanesian societies."

What were the technicalities of the vote?

New Caledonia, located 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) southeast of Australia, has to choose whether to stay as part of France or become an independent state. Polls opened for 185,000 voters at 7 a.m. local time and will close at 6 p.m. (8 a.m. CET). In the two preceding referendums, held in November 2018 and October 2020 respectively, New Caledonians voted with a slight majority to stick with Paris. A total of three referendums were agreed with France in the Noumea Agreement of 1998.

French President Emmanuel Macron promised that "whatever the result is, there will be a shared life" and said his government would not take sides in the plebiscite. France flew in an extra 2,000 extra police and 250 magistrates for the poll.

jsi, jc/wd (AFP, dpa, AP, Reuters)

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