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A majority of voters in the South Pacific territory of New Caledonia chose to remain part of France instead of backing independence, election officials announced Sunday as French President Emmanuel Macron promised a full dialogue on the region’s future.

The decision to keep ties with France was watershed moment for the archipelago that lies east of Australia and has sun-kissed lagoons as well as a nickel mining industry. The independence referendum itself was a milestone in New Caledonia’s three-decades-long decolonization process, which was borne out of deep resentment by the region’s native Kanaks of decades of ill treatment by their European colonizer.

Final results Sunday saw 56.4 percent of voters choosing to remain part of France compared to 43.6 percent support for independence, the high commissioner’s office said.

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The poll had a record-high participation rate of 80.6 percent of registered voters — so many that some polling stations in the capital, Noumea, had to stay open about an hour longer than planned Sunday to handle the crush.

More than 174,000 registered voters were invited to answer the question: “Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?” France has ruled New Caledonia since the mid-19th century.

“I’m asking everyone to turn toward the future to build tomorrow’s New Caledonia,” Macron said, speaking from the presidential Elysee Palace in Paris. “The spirit of dialogue is the sole winner.”

Praising both sides for their “responsible” campaigns, Macron added that “contempt and violence” were the only losers in the historic poll.
The high commissioner’s office reported limited outbreaks of unrest in Noumea as votes were counted, with seven cars set ablaze, some roads closed and two instances of stone-throwing. But otherwise the vote was overwhelmingly peaceful.

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Prime Minister Edouard Philippe is set to meet with New Caledonian officials Monday morning for talks about the political future of the territory of 270,000 people. 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.

Residents of the region include the native Kanaks, who represent about 40 percent of the population, people of European descent, which make up about 27 percent and others from Asian countries and Pacific islands.

Most Kanaks had tended to back independence, while most descendants of European settlers had favored keeping the French connection.

The referendum is the result of a process that started 30 years ago to end years of violence between independence supporters and opponents that had overall claimed more than 70 lives. The two sides agreed upon a 1988 deal and another agreement a decade later included plans for an independence referendum.

Voter Monette Saihulinwa said she opposed independence.

“I don’t necessarily want our lives to change,” the 50-year-old said.

Others hailed the ballot as historic.

“We’ve been waiting for 30 years for this vote,” said Mariola Bouyer, 34. “This vote must demonstrate that we want to live in peace, no matter our race, our roots. It’s building a country together.”

The New Caledonia archipelago became French in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III — Napoleon’s nephew and heir — and was used for decades as a prison colony. It became an overseas territory after World War II, with French citizenship granted to all Kanaks in 1957. Under French colonial rule, the Kanaks faced strict segregation policies and suffered discrimination.

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