NOUMEA, New Caledonia (AP) — A majority of voters in the South Pacific territory of New Caledonia chose to remain part of France instead of backing independence Sunday, a watershed moment that led French President Emmanuel Macron to promise a full dialogue on the archipelago’s future.
Final results had 56.4 percent of the voters who participated in the referendum deciding to maintain ties with the country that has ruled New Caledonia since the mid-19th century and 43.6 percent supporting independence, the high commissioner’s office said.
“I’m asking everyone to turn toward the future to build tomorrow’s New Caledonia,” Macron said, speaking from the presidential Elysee Palace in Paris. “The spirit of dialogue is the sole winner.”
More than 174,000 registered voters were invited to answer the question: “Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?”
The referendum attracted record-high turnout of 80.6 percent — so many voters that some polling stations in the capital, Noumea, had to stay open about an hour longer than planned to handle the crush.
The vote itself was a milestone in New Caledonia’s three decades of decolonization, a process prompted by the ill-treatment Europeans inflicted on the region’s indigenous Kanak people. New Caledonia, an archipelago east of Australia, has a nickel mining industry as well as sun-kissed lagoons.
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. But otherwise, the vote was overwhelmingly peaceful.
Praising both sides for their “responsible” campaigns, Macron said “contempt and violence” were the only losers in the historic poll.
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe is set to meet with New Caledonian officials Monday to discuss the political future of the territory of 270,000 people.
New Caledonia receives about 1.3 billion euros ($1.5 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 percent of the population, people of European descent, which make up about 27 percent and others from Asian countries and Pacific islands.
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 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.
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.