NOUMÉA, New Caledonia — New Caledonia, a tiny scattering of islands within the South Pacific, won’t mark the brand new yr by changing into the world’s latest nation.

In a referendum held on Sunday, voters rejected independence overwhelmingly, with 97 p.c electing to keep a part of France, in accordance to closing outcomes launched on Monday by the French High Commission in New Caledonia.

But whereas the referendum failed, prompting those that voted “non” to fly the French tricolor within the capital, Nouméa, the consequence doesn’t sign an finish to goals of New Caledonian sovereignty.

“We are pursuing our path of emancipation,” Louis Mapou, New Caledonia’s president, mentioned in an interview, brushing apart any outcomes of the referendum. “That is what is essential.”

Mr. Mapou is the primary pro-independence chief to maintain the official title of president in New Caledonia and the primary from the Indigenous Kanak group, which makes up about 40 p.c of the inhabitants. He refers to the territory as a rustic. (He can also be the sort of president who chauffeurs himself in a Subaru Forester.)

Most of the Kanak pro-independence bloc boycotted Sunday’s vote after its plea for a postponement was rebuffed, with nonparticipation exceeding 95 p.c in a single province. The massive quantity of people that stayed away has heightened worries that the referendum’s legitimacy was undermined by nonparticipation. President Emmanuel Macron of France, who has made shoring up the nation’s worldwide profile a cornerstone of his marketing campaign for re-election in April, refused a delay.

“France is more beautiful because New Caledonia chose to stay,” Mr. Macron said in a televised statement on Sunday.

With its far-flung island outposts — akin to French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna within the Pacific Ocean, in addition to Mayotte and Réunion within the Indian Ocean — France boasts one of many world’s largest maritime profiles. But the current collapse of a French submarine cope with Australia, a results of the United States and Britain swooping in as a substitute, embarrassed Paris. Mr. Macron had positioned France as a bulwark in opposition to China, which is increasing its clout within the Indo-Pacific.

“Woe to the small, woe to the isolated, woe to those who will be influenced and attacked by hegemonic powers who will come to seek their fish, their technology, their economic resources,” he mentioned in a speech in July in French Polynesia.

Although the “hegemonic power” remained unnamed, the that means was clear: China.

Sunday’s vote was the third of three independence referendums promised by Paris after years of battle in New Caledonia within the 1980s, an rebellion recognized merely as “the Events.” In the second vote final yr, 47 p.c selected independence, up from 43 p.c within the first referendum in 2018.

The vote on Sunday drew solely 44 p.c of eligible voters, in contrast to 86 p.c in the course of the 2020 referendum. While traces of voters snaked out of polling stations in French loyalist areas of Nouméa and its environs on Sunday morning, they have been just about empty in pro-independence strongholds.

Kanak leaders had urged the French authorities to reschedule Sunday’s referendum for subsequent yr as a result of a late-breaking coronavirus wave had disproportionately affected their folks. Lengthy Kanak mourning traditions, they argued, made political campaigning unimaginable.

“The French state is disrespecting the relationship between the Kanak living and dead,” mentioned Daniel Goa, the top of a pro-independence political celebration. “The decolonization process is going ahead without respecting the people who must be decolonized.”

The historical past of empire is certainly one of centuries of subjugation, however there are few locations left on the planet the place colonization endures. After annexing New Caledonia in 1853 and establishing a penal colony, the French compelled the Kanaks off their fertile tribal lands and onto reservations. The French brutally crushed Kanak efforts to repel them.

With the invention of nickel, the French administration introduced in laborers from Asia and different components of the Pacific to work the mines, which stay the territory’s largest financial driver. Conflict and international ailments exacted a lethal toll on the Kanaks, whose inhabitants plunged by about half inside three-quarters of a century. Today, with an inflow of French crowding Nouméa — civil servants can earn salaries double that of again in France — the Kanaks are a minority of their homeland.

To put together for the referendum on Sunday, hundreds of French safety forces descended on the territory of 270,000 folks. The aftermath of the final referendum devolved into violence, with Kanak youths setting hearth to nickel mine amenities and blockading main thoroughfares.

“Half the country is for independence and half is against it,” Charles Wea, a presidential adviser, mentioned earlier than the votes have been counted. “We have to rebuild a new social contract. Otherwise, we will always be divided.”

New Caledonia is the one place in Melanesia, an arc of islands that stretches from Papua New Guinea to Fiji, that continues to be beneath colonial management. Neighboring Vanuatu gained independence in 1980, the Solomon Islands two years earlier than that.

French loyalists argue that New Caledonia’s privileged financial place — its per capita G.D.P. would rank it among the many prime 20 richest international locations if it have been thought-about a rustic — is afforded by its standing as a French territory. Subsidies from Paris fill New Caledonia’s coffers, and the territory’s wealth doubled over the previous three a long time.

Should New Caledonia finally turn out to be unbiased, the territory would commerce France’s geopolitical affect for that of China, which has prolonged its attain over Melanesia, French loyalists say. Last month, fatal riots shook the Solomon Islands, with the prime minister blaming the violence on the change of diplomatic allegiance to China from Taiwan, the self-governing democracy that’s Beijing’s political rival.

“When you look at France and China, it is totally different when it comes to human rights,” mentioned Christopher Gygès, an anti-independence politician who additionally serves as New Caledonia’s minister for the financial system, international commerce and vitality. “France’s presence will protect us from China’s appetite and efforts to take control of the region.”

Mr. Mapou, the president, has held open the likelihood that an unbiased New Caledonia would entrust its protection to France, permitting Paris to preserve a regional stronghold.

“We can balance,” he mentioned. “We can be in the Pacific, defend our interests, and maintain a link with France and Europe because of history and culture.”

Drawn by New Caledonia’s local weather and cozy residing, the inhabitants of Métros, as current arrivals from France are recognized, has elevated sharply in a era. The heart of Nouméa is essentially a white city of baguettes and leisurely video games of pétanque. New Caledonia’s wealth is concentrated within the Southern Province, the place Nouméa is. Even the New Caledonian authorities will get its workplace house from the province, which is ruled by a white chief.

Despite New Caledonia’s prosperity, earnings disparities yawn extensive. Kanaks make up the overwhelming majority of the territory’s impoverished, unemployed and imprisoned. Despite authorities efforts to assist Kanaks pursue greater schooling in France, there are few Kanak medical doctors, legal professionals and engineers.

In a sprawl of dilapidated sponsored housing in Magenta, a neighborhood in Nouméa, Jeremy Hnalep, 25, mentioned he drew little hope from politics. The buildings’ lobbies reeked of urine; clumps of younger folks handed round hashish, which is against the law in New Caledonia.

“The only choice is to live outside the system because the system will not change even if there is independence,” Mr. Hnalep mentioned.

Kanak politicians estimate that unemployment amongst Kanak youth exceeds 40 p.c.

In villages exterior Nouméa, the colourful flag of Kanaky, as Kanaks name the land, flutters from market stalls and fishing boats. It flies over funerals and weddings, Catholic feast days and labor strikes. The French flag isn’t seen.

Yet on the eve of the vote, at the same time as she acknowledged the colonial burden on the Kanaks, Anne-Marie Kourévi, the 81-year-old spouse of a Kanak tribal chief in southern New Caledonia, mentioned she would vote “oui” to staying in France.

“I am French,” she mentioned, “and I have been for more than 80 years.”

Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting from Paris.

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