Despite the overall result, support for independence is growing in the New Caledonia, which was colonized by France in 1853. More than 46.7% of ballots cast were in favor of independence, up from 43.3% in the last vote in November 2018.
Turnout was over 85% as the poll took place without any masks or social distancing measures. The pandemic has largely spared the archipelago, which has kept Covid-19 case numbers very low by drastically reducing international flights and imposing mandatory quarantine for all arrivals.
The referendum was part of a decolonization plan under the Nouméa Accord, agreed in 1998, which ended a deadly conflict between the mostly pro-independence indigenous Kanak population and the descendants of European settlers. Another referendum can be held by 2022 if at least a third of the local legislature requests it.
Located between Australia and Fiji, New Caledonia gives France a strategic foothold in the Pacific Ocean, where China is expanding its influence, as well as important nickel reserves. It has a population of 270,000.