December 16, 2021 - 11:30 am

Rejects Independence From France In Referendum 

    Islanders on the Pacific territory of New Caledonia have voted overwhelmingly to remain part of France in a third referendum that was boycotted by Pro-independence groups, raising fears of new tensions. The first two referenda on independence held in 2018 and 2020, saw support for independence grow from 43 % to 47 % and participation rates of over 80%. In Sunday's final vote, the decision to stay within the French republic was carried by 96.49% to 3.51 %. A total of three referendums were agreed with France in the Noumea Agreement of 1988.

    France has had a major presence in the Info-Pacific ever since Napoleon III colonized New Caledonia in 1853. But relations between New Caledonia and Paris have become more strained of late, with indigenous groups angered by Franc's decision to arrange the referendum during the corona virus pandemic. New Caledonia's economy is also tied to China, with experts thinking that the Asian superpower could gain an even greater influence in the region with formal independence. China is already the single biggest client for New Caledonia's vast nickel reserves. Other archipelagos in the region including Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea have strengthened their links with China in recent years.

    The Pro-independence Kanak and Socialist Liberation Front (FLNKS) had called for indigenous Kanaks not to participate in the vote, saying that Covid - which has disproportionately affected Kanak and Pacifika communities - had made Pro-independence campaigning impossible while entire villages observe customary mourning rites. In the Belep islands, where the population is entirely Kanak, no one went to vote. The group asked for the vote to be postponed because of covid which disproportionately affected indigenous Kanak and Pacifika communities. The pro-independence movement has threatened not to recognise Sunday's result and vowed to appeal to the United Nations to get it cancelled. Some observers fear tension could spark a return of the kind of violence last seen in the 1980s when clashes broke out between the pro-independence Kanaks and the white community.

    French President Emmanuel Macron has called the referendum victory a resounding confirmation of France's role in the region, but said the task now was to 'build a common project, while recognising and respecting the dignity of everyone. France has 13 separate overseas territories, home to 2.7 million people, which are generally poorer and have higher unemployment than the European mainland, leading to long-standing accusations of neglect. Some such as French Polynesia have been granted large degree of autonomy which could serve as a model for New Caledonia.