The Pacific islands of New Caledonia opted to remain part of France on Sunday, early results of a crucial vote showed.
Reports said voters rejected independence in a closely-watched referendum seen as a measure of support for Paris in one of its many strategic outposts.
Some 18,000 kilometres (11,000 miles) from the French mainland, New Caledonia is home to a quarter of the world’s known supplies of nickel — a vital electronics component — and is a foothold for France in the Pacific.
With 70 percent of voting slips counted, 59.5 percent of people had rejected the proposition that New Caledonia become independent, the local electoral authority said.
Some 175,000 people were eligible to vote in the remote islands fringed by spectacular beaches, with opinion polls ahead of Sunday’s ballot predicting a large majority in favour of staying French.
But there are fears the referendum could inflame tensions between indigenous Kanak people, who tend to favour independence, and the white population which has settled since France annexed the islands in 1853.
These differences caused ethnic strife in the 1980s which claimed more than 70 lives. It led to the 1998 Noumea Accord which paved the way for a steady devolution of powers as well as Sunday’s referendum.
Separatists had urged Kanak voters to choose self-determination for Kanaky, their name for New Caledonia, and throw off the shackles of the “colonial” authorities in Paris.
The Kanak community is plagued by high school dropout rates, chronic unemployment and poor housing conditions.
“My father, my grandfather fought for this country and today is the second fight in the ballot box,” said pro-independence supporter Patrick Watrone as he voted Sunday.
“Today, us young Kanaks, we have no jobs. If we are the ones who manage the country, we will have more opportunities,” said Fabrice Ude, 28.
But indigenous people make up less than 50 percent of the electorate and some Kanaks back staying part of France, not least due to the 1.3 billion euros ($1.5 billion) the French state hands to the islands every year.
Going it alone, “I’m not sure we have all the assets we’d need to succeed,” said Marc Gnipate, a 62-year-old pensioner.
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Michaele Mikena, 61, also “voted no. I’m not afraid of independence, but I am attached to France, I owe it a lot”.
Under the 1998 deal, further referendums on independence can still be held before 2022.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who is due to give a televised address after the results, has largely stayed clear of the campaign but during a visit to Noumea in May he declared “France would be less beautiful without New Caledonia”.
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