Voters in New Caledonia have rejected independence and decided to remain part of France. Late Sunday night the French government released provisional results showing 78,361 people voted No in the historic referendum, while 60,573 cast their ballot for Yes — a margin of 56.4% to 43.6%.
But the unexpectedly tight result ensures the debate for sovereignty will continue to dominate political life in this Pacific territory, with activists vowing to continue their struggle. Some anti-independence politicians had been predicting they would win a handsome victory, suggesting that the No campaign could harness as much as 70% of the vote.
And loyalists were heartened by early results suggesting more than 60% of voters had rejected independence. But the margin narrowed as the night wore on, with many indigenous Kanak communities in the north of the territory voting heavily for full sovereignty.
Late last night activists gathered at the headquarters of the pro-independence coalition FLNKS, blaring horns in celebration waving multi-colored Kanaky flags. A local FLNKS leader, Jean-Raymond Postic, was buoyant about the result.
I would call it a semi-victory. I certainly wouldn't call it a defeat, he said. We have already defied the polls. We really mobilized against everything that was said against us
France has agreed that two more referenda will be held in 2020 and in 2022 under a peace agreement it negotiated with FLNKS and pro-France politicians. But in recent weeks anti-independence politicians have been increasingly confident of victory and have called for the two referenda to be cancelled. That prospect looks unlikely in the wake of this result.
FLNKS campaign director Gerard Reignier said French loyalists could not ignore the size of the pro-independence vote. The independence forces have not lost, it's quite the opposite, he said.
So [the loyalists] have to take us seriously, they have to acknowledge our authority.
But Cindy Pralong from the New Caledonian Republican Party said she still believed the margin was big enough to settle the question. Since the vote [for No] is high, we believe it's not necessary to have a second or third referendum, she said
France has declared that independence lies in the hands of New Caledonians, but President Emmanuel Macron has also made it clear that he would like the territory to remain.
Last night Mr Macron declared that voters had made a sovereign choice. Today, the majority of them expressed themselves for New Caledonia to remain French, he said.
I have to tell you how proud I am that we have finally passed this historic step together
France's Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, will arrive in New Caledonia for a lightning quick visit to hold talks with local leaders.
The referendum has exposed ethnic and social fault lines in this Pacific French Overseas Territory, and some officials worry there might be violence in its aftermath.
Voting day was peaceful and orderly, but there were some outbreaks of crime after polls closed. Local media reported that seven cars were set on fire in the north of the capital, while a shop was burnt down in the heart of the city.