NOUMEA, New Caledonia (AP) -- Voters in the French island territory of New Caledonia chose overwhelmingly Sunday to stay part of France, in a referendum boycotted by pro-independence forces and closely watched around the South Pacific.
French President Emmanuel Macron hailed the result as a resounding confirmation of France's role in the Indo-Pacific, and announced negotiations on the territory's future status. Separatist activists expressed disappointment or resignation.
They had urged a delay in the vote because of the pandemic, and were angry over what they said were French government efforts to sway the campaign. So they called on their supporters to stay away from voting stations.
And they did. Official results showed 96% of those who took part chose to stay in France. Overall turnout was just 42% -- less than half the numbers who showed up in a previous independence referendum last year, where support for breaking away was 46.7%.
"Tonight we are French, and we will stay that way. It's no longer negotiable," said Sonia Backes, president of the Southern Province region and a fervent loyalist.
The vote was monitored by the U.N. and regional powers, amid global efforts toward decolonization and amid growing Chinese influence in the region. New Caledonia, colonized by Napoleon's nephew in the 19th century, is a vast archipelago of about 270,000 people east of Australia that is 10 time zones ahead of Paris -- and hosts a French military base.
"Tonight France is more beautiful because New Caledonia decided to stay," Macron said in a national televised address.
He did not address the boycott. Noting that the electorate "remains deeply divided," Macron pledged "respect for all Caledonians," including those who voted to break away.
Sunday's vote was the third and last in a decades-long decolonization process that stemmed from violence in 1988, which led to the French government handing New Caledonia broad autonomy under the Noumea Agreement. The process was aimed at settling tensions between native Kanaks seeking independence and those who want the territory to remain part of France.
The process does not end with the last referendum. The state, separatists and non-separatists now have 18 months to negotiate a new status for the territory and its institutions within France.
"We are reaching a new stage," Macron said, calling for negotiations on new structures to handle health crises, boost the economy, improve women's rights and protect the environment from climate change -- a major concern in this island territory.
A tropical storm warning also dampened enthusiasm for the vote. Lines snaked out of some polling stations, as winds whipped palm trees lining the streets of the regional capital Noumea. But turnout at others was barely a trickle.
The question put to people in the archipelago's 307 voting stations was: "Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?" Masks and social distancing measures were required.
The campaign and voting day were unusually calm because of the boycott call.
In the first such referendum in 2018, 43.6% of voters supported independence, and 46.7% favored it in a second vote held in 2020. While support for a "yes" vote seemed to be growing, the region's first coronavirus outbreak in September threw the political debate into disarray. Until then, New Caledonia had been one of the few virus-free places left on the planet.
By November, the archipelago had reported 271 COVID-19 deaths, and the regional Senate decreed a year of traditional Kanak mourning. Independence activists felt they couldn't campaign out of respect for their dead, and demanded that the referendum be postponed.
But pro-France groups insisted the vote should take place as scheduled to end uncertainty over New Caledonia's future and to boost its economic prospects. Pro-independence activists announced they would refuse to take part, accusing the government in Paris of imposing the referendum date and violating neutrality by publishing a document seen as casting the consequences of independence in a negative light.
France is trying to cement its presence in the Indo-Pacific region after it lost a multibillion-dollar submarine contract because of a partnership Australia formed with the United States and the U.K. The secretly negotiated submarine project, announced in September and aimed at countering Chinese ambitions in the region, was a huge blow to France. New Caledonia hosts one of two French military bases in the Pacific.
Macron said the vote sent an important message to the Indo-Pacific region while it undergoes "recomposition" and faces "strong tensions."
The U.N. has supported New Caledonia's decolonization process and sent electoral observers to monitor Sunday's vote. The Pacific Islands Forum also sent a delegation to observe the vote.