Islanders on the Pacific territory of New Caledonia voted overwhelmingly on Sunday to remain part of France in a third referendum that was boycotted by pro-independence groups, raising fears of new tensions.
With all ballots counted, 96.49 percent were against independence, while only 3.51 percent were in favour, with turnout a mere 43.90 percent, results from the islands’ high commission showed.
“Tonight France is more beautiful because New Caledonia has decided to stay part of it,” President Emmanuel Macron said in a recorded video message that made no direct mention of the boycott.
Police reinforcements have been sent to the territory known as “the pebble”, which is of strategic importance to France and part of a wider tussle for influence in the Pacific between Western countries and China.
The boycott and crushing nature of the “No” vote will raise fears of protests as well as questions about the democratic legitimacy of the referendum on the archipelago, 2,000 kilometres (1,250 miles) east of Australia.
Macron noted “the high abstention rates” but said France could be “proud” of a more than 30-year process designed to settle the islands’ status under which residents were asked in three separate referendums if they wished to break away.
Having rejected independence in 2018 and then again last year, inhabitants were called on Sunday to answer one last time whether they wanted New Caledonia “to accede to full sovereignty and become independent”.
Pro-independence campaigners boycotted the vote, saying they wanted it postponed to September because “a fair campaign” was impossible with high coronavirus infection numbers.