Macron hails New Caledonia vote to 'remain French'

The distinctive Kanak flag is a symbol of the pro-independence movement in New Caledonia

The distinctive Kanak flag is a symbol of the pro-independence movement in New Caledonia

"The New Caledonians have chosen to remain French.It is a vote of confidence in the French republic, its future and its values", President Emmanuel Macron said in a speech on French television.

From Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron was to speak about the territory's future and its choice in a televised address.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe will meet with officials in New Caledonia to discuss future plans.

The referendum is the result of a 30-year long decolonisation process on the Pacific archipelago.

In 1988, the Matignon Accord proposed an end to direct French rule, while the 1998 Noumea accord set the timetable for a vote on the territory's independence from France to be held in 2018.

The poll asked almost 1,000 French people on October 30-31 who they would vote for if the European Parliament elections were to be held the next Sunday. Under French colonial rule, the Kanaks suffered under strict segregation policies and faced discrimination.

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.

If more than half of the island's residents vote "yes" in the referendum, New Caledonia will have to form a new independent state and rebuild its relationship with France.

With results declared from 202 of the 284 polling stations, the "Non" vote against independence from France was leading with 60 percent of the 123,000 votes that had been counted, the office for the French High Commissioner said.

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Earlier, the commissioner estimated that about three-quarters of registered voters in the South Pacific archipelago cast ballots. "All age groups were represented and mobilized".

First results trickled in from the referendum, with a village of about 600 people the first to declare, voting overwhelmingly against a split from France.

More than 174,000 registered voters are invited to answer the question- "Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?"

More than 90 per cent of votes in some mainly Kanak areas were for "yes", while other communities with a mainly European population voted strongly for "no".

Voters have turned out in exceptional numbers to decide whether the French South Pacific territory should break free from the European country that claimed it in 1853.

Home to 269,000 people, New Caledonia is one of a handful of French island outposts - a legacy of the country's 19th-century empire - which retain strategic importance.

Macron announced the result hours after polls closed in Sunday's (local time) referendum.

Macron stayed largely clear of the campaign, except for one visit to Noumea in May, when he acknowledged the "pains of colonisation" and said: "France would be less lovely without New Caledonia". New Caledonia, an archipelago east of Australia, has a nickel mining industry as well as sun-kissed lagoons.

Both French Guiana in South America and the Indian Ocean archipelago of Mayotte have been rocked since past year by major protests over living standards and perceived neglect.

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