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French Pacific territory New Caledonia rejects independence

Australian Associated Press - November 5, 2018

The decision to keep ties with France was a watershed moment for the archipelago that lies east of Australia and has sun-kissed lagoons and a strong nickel mining industry.

The independence referendum itself was a milestone in New Caledonia's three-decades-long decolonisation process, which was borne out of deep resentment by the region's native Kanaks of decades of ill treatment by their European coloniser.

Final results Sunday saw 56.4 per cent of voters choosing to remain part of France compared to 43.6 per cent supporting independence, the high commissioner's office said.

The poll had a record-high participation rate of 80.6 per cent of registered voters so many that some polling stations in the capital, Noumea, had to stay open about an hour longer than planned on Sunday to handle the demand.

More than 174,000 registered voters were invited to answer the question: "Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?"

France has ruled New Caledonia since the mid-19th century.

"I'm asking everyone to turn toward the future to build tomorrow's New Caledonia," said Macron, speaking from the presidential Elysee Palace in Paris. "The spirit of dialogue is the sole winner."

Praising both sides for their "responsible" campaigns, Macron added that "contempt and violence" were the only losers in the historic poll.

The high commissioner's office reported limited outbreaks of unrest in Noumea as votes were counted, with seven cars set ablaze, some roads closed and two instances of stone-throwing. Otherwise, the vote was overwhelmingly peaceful.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe is set to meet with New Caledonian officials on Monday morning for talks about the political future of the territory's 270,000 people.

New Caledonia receives about Euro 1.3 billion ($2.1 billion) in French state subsidies every year, and many had feared the economy would suffer if ties were severed.

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

Kanaks had tended to back independence, while most descendants of European settlers had favoured keeping the French connection.

The referendum was the result of a process that started 30 years ago to end years of violence between independence supporters and opponents that had overall claimed more than 70 lives. The two sides agreed upon a 1988 deal and another agreement a decade later included plans for an independence referendum.

Voter Monette Saihulinwa said she opposed independence. "I don't necessarily want our lives to change," the 50-year-old said.

Others hailed the ballot as historic. "We've been waiting for 30 years for this vote," said Mariola Bouyer, 34. "This vote must demonstrate that we want to live in peace, no matter our race, our roots. It's building a country together."

The New Caledonia archipelago became French in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III Napoleon's nephew and heir and was used for decades as a prison colony. It became an overseas territory after World War II, with French citizenship granted to all Kanaks in 1957. Under French colonial rule, the Kanaks faced strict segregation policies and suffered discrimination.

Source: https://www.smh.com.au/world/oceania/french-pacific-territory-new-caledonia-rejects-independence-20181104-p50dyn.html.

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