New Caledonia agrees to keep part of France in a milestone referendum

New Caledonia agrees to keep part of France in a milestone referendum

(NOUMEA, New Caledonia) – A majority of voters in the South Pacific region of New Caledonia have chosen to remain part of France rather than supporting independence. This is a turning point that has led French President Emmanuel Macron to promise a full dialogue on the future of the archipelago.

Final results had 56.4% of the voters who participated in the referendum, and decided to maintain relations with the country that has ruled New Caledonia since the mid-19th century, and 43.6% support independence, he said Office of the High Commissioner.

"I urge everyone to look to the future to build tomorrow's New Caledonia," said Macron from the Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris. "The spirit of dialogue is the only winner."

More than 174,000 registered voters were asked to answer the question, "Would you like New Caledonia to be given full sovereignty and become independent?"

The referendum attracted a record 80.6% turnout – so many voters that some polling stations in the capital Noumea had to stay open about an hour longer than planned to cope with the rush.

The vote itself marked a milestone in the three decades of decolonization of New Caledonia, a process triggered by the Europeans' abuse of the indigenous people of the Kanak region. New Caledonia, an archipelago east of Australia, has nickel mining and sun-drenched lagoons.

The High Commissioner's Office reported limited riots in Noumea as the votes were counted, seven cars were on fire, some roads were closed and two cases of falling rocks. Otherwise, the vote was mostly peaceful.

Macron praised both sides for their "responsible" campaigns and said "contempt and violence" are the only losers in the historical poll.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe will meet with New Caledonian representatives on Monday to discuss the political future of the 270,000-plus territory.

New Caledonia receives around € 1.3 billion in state subsidies each year, and many feared that the economy would suffer if relations were broken.

Residents of the region include native Kanaks, who make up about 40% of the population, people of European descent who make up about 27%, and others from Asian countries and the Pacific Islands.

Voter Monette Saihulinwa said she opposes independence.

"I do not necessarily want our lives to change," said the 50-year-old.

Others welcomed the ballot as historic.

"We have been waiting for this vote for 30 years," said Mariola Bouyer, 34. "This vote must show that we want to live in peace, regardless of our race and roots. It builds a country together. "

The referendum was the result of a process that began 30 years ago to end the years of violence between independent advocates and opponents, who claimed a total of more than 70 lives. The two sides agreed on a deal in 1988, and another decade later, it contained plans for an independence referendum.

The New Caledonian archipelago became French in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III – Napoleon's nephew and heir – and was used for decades as a prison colony.

After the Second World War, it became an overseas territory. French citizenship was granted to all Kanaks in 1957. Under French colonial rule, the Kanaks were subjected to strict segregation policies and suffered discrimination.

Contact TIME editors on this story at editors@time.com.

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