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A man votes at a polling station in Noumea, New Caledonia, as part of the independence referendum on Sunday. Image Credit: AP

Noumea: The Pacific islands of New Caledonia opted to remain part of France on Sunday, early results showed, as 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 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 per cent of voting slips counted, 59.5 per cent 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 on 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 per cent of the electorate and some Kanaks back staying part of France, not least due to the €1.3 billion (Dh5.43 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, 62, a pensioner. 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.

Balancing China in the Pacific?

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”.

He also raised concerns over increasing Chinese influence in the Pacific, where Beijing has invested heavily in Vanuatu, a territory which broke away 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 — boosting its own spending in response.

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.

The referendum will be a test of the appeal of remaining part of France for such far-flung territories, which are heavily dependent on state handouts but where many feel overlooked by Paris.

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

France also faces renewed calls for independence from nationalists on the Mediterranean island of Corsica.