French authorities have said a majority of voters in New Caledonia, an archipelago in the South Pacific, have chosen to remain part of France.
Officials said the results show 53.3% of voters who participated in the referendum have chosen to maintain ties with France, while 46.7% supported independence.
The independence referendum was part of a three-decade decolonisation effort aimed at settling tensions on the archipelago between native Kanaks seeking independence and residents willing to remain in France. The South Pacific archipelago has been part of France since 1853.
More than 180,000 voters were invited to answer the question: Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?
“Today is not a day like any other. Everyone woke up with the will to express oneself (through the vote). This is a historic day,” said Robert Wayaridri, 60.
In Noumea, the capital, large lines of people waited to vote under the hot sun, sometimes for hours. More than 85% of voters had cast their ballots one hour before poll stations closed, according to authorities. Some polling stations in Noumea closed an hour late because people were still waiting to vote at the planned closing time.
Across the archipelago, horns and cheers could be heard all day in the streets, and some people waved pro-independence flags in a relaxed atmosphere.
The movement leading the independence campaign called on its supporters to stay “calm and respectful”.
Corine Florentin, who was born in Noumea 52 years ago, said she voted against independence because she wants to “remain French”.
“We can live together, all races together, and design our common future,” she said.
A student at the University of New Caledonia, Guillaume Paul, 18, also voted no because he wants the archipelago to keep its ties with France.
“What would the country become if it was independent? There is a real danger that without the financing brought by France, the university would disappear,” he said.
But Joachim Neimbo, 22, was in favour of independence.
“I voted yes, because that’s my people’s combat. We want the recognition of our identity, our culture. I think we are able to manage ourselves,” he said.
Taguy Wayenece, 25, also voted yes to independence.
“We need to return to tradition, to working in the fields, to stay with the tribe. Modern life is too complicated for us,” he said.
Two years ago, 56.4% of voters who participated in a similar referendum chose to keep the region’s ties with Paris.
The archipelago now counts 270,000 inhabitants, including both native Kanaks, who once suffered from strict segregation policies and widespread discrimination, and descendants of European colonisers.
New Caledonia 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 the Second World War, with French citizenship granted to all Kanaks in 1957.
In a televised address from Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed “an expression of confidence in the Republic with a deep feeling of gratitude… and modesty”.
Mr Macron promised pro-independence supporters “this is with you, all together, that we will build New Caledonia tomorrow”.
He praised the “success” of the vote and called on New Caledonia residents to “look to the future”.