Pro-independence parties in New Caledonia have rejected the result of a referendum, which overwhelmingly approved the Pacific territory remaining part of France, as final results showed that almost two-third of voters abstained or returned blank or null ballots.
A coalition of pro-independence groups said in a statement on Monday that they “do not recognise the legitimacy or the validity of this vote.”
“This referendum did not respect the spirit or the letter of the Noumea accords,” the statement added.
A total of 96.49 percent of ballots cast in Sunday’s referendum were against independence, while only 3.51 percent were in favour.
Final results published by the French High Commission in Noumea on Monday showed a turnout of 43.9 per cent.
Abstentions stood at 56.13 percent, blank ballots at 1.43 percent and null ballots at 1.56 percent.
Kanaks, who largely favour independence, had called for non-participation in the vote after France declined a request to delay the ballot to allow for a traditional mourning period following a September surge in coronavirus infections.
France’s decision to hold the vote against the wishes of Kanaks, drew condemnation in neighbouring Pacific islands where sensitivities over colonisation are high.
Speaking earlier on the France Inter radio, France’s minister in charge of overseas territories defended the result, saying it had full legal force.
“Whatever the turnout level, legally speaking it’s a vote that has the same weight as the two previous ones that returned a ‘No’ vote,” Sebastien Lecornu said, referring to two previous referendums in 2018 and 2020.
He admitted that “politically it means something: we need to look at this division”.
Police reinforcements have been sent to the islands in case of unrest and about 2,000 officers were deployed for the vote, which passed without incident.
“The path of dialogue has been broken off by the stubbornness of a French government that is incapable of reconciling its geopolitical interests in the Pacific with its obligation to decolonise our country,” the statement from the main independence groups said.
President Emmanuel Macron noted “the high abstention rates” in a recorded message on Sunday, but he said that France could be “proud” of a more than a 30-year process designed to settle the islands’ status.
Residents were asked in three separate referendums if they wished to break away.
Having rejected independence in 2018 and then again last year, islanders were called on Sunday to answer one last time whether they wanted New Caledonia “to accede to full sovereignty and become independent”.
At stake in the vote was one of France’s biggest overseas territories which is home to about 10 percent of the world’s reserves of nickel, which is used to make stainless steel, batteries and mobile phones.
The islands are also a key part of France’s claim of being a Pacific power, with New Caledonia granting Paris rights to the surrounding ocean, as well as serving as a military staging post.
Experts suspect that an independent New Caledonia would move closer to Beijing, which has built up close economic links and political influence on other Pacific islands.
Macron said that “a period of transition” would now start which is expected to result in Paris granting more political autonomy to the islands, which are split along ethnic grounds between white Europeans and the Indigenous population.