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New Caledonia rejects full independence from France again

The result brings relief to President Emmanuel Macron’s government, whose attention had been focused on the coronavirus pandemic in the run-up to the referendum.

“Voters have had their say. They confirmed their wish to keep New Caledonia a part of France. As head of state, I salute this show of confidence in the Republic with a profound feeling of gratitude and modesty,” Macron said in a televised statement.

A boy helps his father to vote in New Caledonia's second independence referendum.

A boy helps his father to vote in New Caledonia’s second independence referendum. Credit:AP

But he also acknowledged the large numbers who voted ‘yes’: “It is up to you, all together, that we will build New Caledonia tomorrow”…

“We are facing our history in New Caledonia, a colonial history,” Macron said. “And we are trying to overcome it so that we are not trapped in it. We know that today we are at a crossroads.”

New Caledonia became a French colony in 1853. Tensions have long run deep between pro-independence indigenous Kanaks and descendants of colonial settlers who remain loyal to Paris.

Sunday’s referendum was the second of up to three permitted under the terms of the 1998 Noumea Accord, an agreement enshrined in France’s constitution and which set out a 20-year path towards decolonisation.

A person picks up cards for "Yes" and "No" before casting one of them at the independence referendum in Noumea, New Caledonia.

A person picks up cards for “Yes” and “No” before casting one of them at the independence referendum in Noumea, New Caledonia.Credit:AP

France stood ready to organise a further vote within two years if that was the wish of New Caledonians, at which point both sides would have to accept the result, Macron said.

“We have two years to look to the future,” the President said.

Two years ago, 56.4 per cent of people in a similar referendum voted against independence.

The island chain already enjoys a large degree of autonomy but depends heavily on France for matters such as defence and education.

New Caledonia lies some 1200 kilometres east of Australia and 20,000 kilometres from Paris.

Under French colonial rule the Kanaks were confined to reserves and excluded from much of the island’s economy. The first revolt erupted in 1878, not long after the discovery of large nickel deposits that are today exploited by French miner Eramet’s subsidiary SLN.

Today, its economy is underpinned by annual French subsidies of some €1.3 billion ($2.1 billion) and nickel deposits that are estimated to represent 25 per cent of the world’s total, and tourism.

The territory has, however, largely cut itself off from the outside world to shield itself from the coronavirus. It has registered only 27 cases of COVID-19.

New Caledonian politicians acknowledged the need for dialogue between pro and anti-independence sides.

The president of the archipelago’s government, Thierry Santa, is among those who want the territory to remain French. He stressed the “deep division” in the population.

“That’s up to us political leaders to have the intelligence to sit around a table and discuss what we want for the future,” Santa said.

Sonia Backes, president of the South province, also in favour of keeping ties with France, said “the ‘no’ won one more time, but we need to take into account all voters, including independence supporters.”

The president of the Congress and a leading figure in the pro-independence movement, Roch Wamytan, vowed to “continue to fight for the independence of our country”.

Reuters, AP

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