NOUMEA, New Caledonia—Voters on a French island group in the Pacific rejected the chance to create the world’s newest country in a referendum that exposed deep rifts over wealth equality.
Preliminary results showed that voters in New Caledonia backed remaining part of France 57% to 43%. The referendum aimed to resolve tensions between mostly European immigrants and the indigenous Kanak tribes, which have been pushed into a minority among a population of more than 270,000 and boycotted the only previous ballot in 1987.
“This is a rich land, like Australia or most regions of mainland France, but the differences in income are like those of Bangladesh,” said Phillippe Gomès, a French lawmaker and leader of centrist party Calédonie Ensemble, who campaigned to maintain the status quo.
New Caledonia—slightly smaller in size than New Jersey and located about 900 miles from Australia—plays an outsize role in global commodity markets. Its mining operations account for around 10% of the world’s nickel, forming a vital part of a supply chain that feeds auto makers and other industries.
A pro-independence outcome also would have put New Caledonia in charge of matters such as defense and foreign affairs as global powers vie for influence in the Pacific.
New Caledonia is an important military base for France, which stations almost 2,000 armed forces personnel there and has invited U.S. troops for military exercises in recent years. During a visit to New Caledonia in May, French President Emmanuel Macron warned of China’s growing hegemony in the region and called for a new strategic alliance between France, India and Australia.
The independence coalition, Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste, or FLNKS, had campaigned on a promise to wrest control of natural resources from producers that include Swiss commodities trader
PLC to ensure more wealth from high commodity prices flowed to grass-roots communities. Mining and refining account for roughly 90% of the territory’s export earnings.
In the northern part of New Caledonia, largely populated by indigenous Kanaks, more than three-quarters of votes were cast in favor of independence.
“The French system is unsuitable for Kanak people and their customs,” said Louise Waetheane, a 50-year-old Kanak woman.
Mathurin Derel/Associated Press
In contrast to the unrest that preceded the 1987 vote, this referendum campaign was largely peaceful, Still some mining operations were targeted with arson and blockades in the months leading up to Sunday’s vote. Vandals repeatedly set a seven-mile-long conveyor belt, nicknamed Serpentine, ablaze at the Kouaoua mine owned by
-run Société Le Nickel.
Particularly in the territory’s south, many voters feared a vote for independence would stoke instability and erode living standards that are among the highest in the Pacific. France injects roughly $1.5 billion each year into the country’s economy, smoothing boom-bust cycles in nickel prices.
In a televised address from Paris, Mr. Macron said the result showed “confidence in the French republic, its future, its values.”
For many in the territory, however, there was frustration at how the vote was handled. Only longtime citizens of New Caledonia and their dependents were entitled to cast a ballot, sparking complaints from some citizens over their exclusion.
Pro-independence campaigners also raised concerns many Kanaks were overlooked because they aren’t in recognized employment and consequently weren’t listed on official records. The Parti Travailliste, a small radical party, claimed the referendum process was rigged and unfair to Kanaks and called for a boycott.
Sunday’s referendum may not end the debate over the island’s status. The Noumea Accord in 1998, named after New Caledonia’s capital, allows for a fresh vote as early as 2020 and potentially a third in 2022. French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe is traveling to New Caledonia to discuss future plans with local officials on Monday.
While the FLNKS said it would regroup to campaign again in two years’ time, some victorious campaigners want further votes to be scrapped.
“The message needs to be heard,” said Virginie Ruffenach, general-secretary of Le Rassemblement-Les Républicains party. “We can’t afford another four years of uncertainty.”
—Mike Cherney and Nick Kostov
contributed to this article.
Write to Rhiannon Hoyle at [email protected]