NOUMEA –The Pacific islands of New Caledonia voted Sunday to remain part of France in an independence referendum that showed support for Paris in one of its many far-flung but 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 where China is increasing its influence.
On the final count, 56.4 percent of people had rejected the proposition that New Caledonia become independent, a clear but smaller-than-expected victory for loyalists to the mainland.
French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his "immense pride that we have taken this historic step together" in a televised address to the nation, adding it was "a sign of confidence in the French republic, in its future and its values." Despite being a archipelago of islands, New Caledonia is sometimes referred to in France as "the pebble" and is home to about 175,000 people.
Turnout was high for the vote, at more than 80 percent. 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.
Several cars were burned and a couple of incidents of stone-throwing were reported late Sunday, local authorities said, but the vote was otherwise peaceful.
Tensions in New Caledonia boiled over into 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 and possibly two others before 2022.
"The Kanaks have become aware that they need to show their determination to be free at last," Alosio Sako, head of the pro-independence movement FLNKS, said after the results were announced.
Polls had forecast a bigger victory -- of between 63-75 percent -- for the "no" campaign. "We're a short step away from victory and there are still two votes to come," Sako added, referring to the other two referendums which are possible under the Noumea Accord.
In recent years, France has faced protests and calls for independence in several of its overseas territories, which are a legacy of the country's colonial history and are sometimes dubbed "the confetti of the French empire". French Guiana in South America and the Indian Ocean archipelago of Mayotte have been rocked by major protests over living standards and perceived neglect.
Closer to home, the Paris government also faces renewed calls for independence from nationalists on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, which have been rebuffed by Macron. - Balancing China in the Pacific? -
The 40-year-old French leader had largely stayed clear of the campaign in New Caledonia, but during a visit to Noumea in May he declared "France would be less beautiful" without the territory.
He also raised concerns over increasing Chinese influence in the Pacific, where Beijing has invested heavily in Vanuatu, a territory which broke from France and Britain in 1980.
Accusing the US of "turning its back on the region in recent months", Macron said China was "building its hegemony step by step" in the Pacific -- suggesting an independent New Caledonia could be Beijing's next target.
Australia has also expressed concerns about China's activities in neighbouring island states -- which the Lowy Institute think-tank estimates received $1.78 billion in aid from Beijing from 2006-16.
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 economically disadvantaged compared with the white population and plagued by high school dropout rates, chronic unemployment and poor housing conditions.
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. ---