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New Caledonia votes to stay with France

The South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia has voted against independence from France in a long-awaited referendum that capped a 30-year long decolonisation process.

A "yes" vote would have deprived Paris of a foothold in the Indo-Pacific region where China is expanding its presence, and dented the pride of a former colonial power whose reach once spanned the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific Ocean.

Based on provisional results and with a participation rate of nearly 80 percent in Sunday's poll, the 'No' vote stood at 56.9 percent around midnight local time, local TV station NC La 1ere reported on its website.

"The New Caledonians have chosen to remain French... it is a vote of confidence in the French republic, its future and its values," President Emmanuel Macron said in a speech on French television.

The referendum was the first auto-determination vote to be held in a French territory since Djibouti in the Horn of Africa voted for independence in 1977.

Voters in the largely self-governing territory had been asked the question, "Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?"

Mr Macron said he understood the disappointment of those who wanted independence, but added that the French state would ensure liberty, equality and fraternity for everyone.

"The only loser is the temptation of contempt, division, violence and fear; the only winner is the process of peace and the spirit of dialogue," Mr Macron said.

Tensions have long run deep between pro-independence indigenous Kanaks and descendants of colonial settlers who remain loyal to Paris.

Over the past decade, relations between the two groups have improved markedly, but the 'no' vote outcome was well below some early polls, which could encourage nationalists to try for a new referendum in coming years.

Some 175,000 out of the 280,000 people living on the archipelago were eligible to vote, with polls showing earlier in the week that the islands were expected to vote to remain a French territory.

Posters calling for a 'no' vote said that 'France is the only chance' while proponents of independence called on people to vote for 'a multicultural, in solidarity, peaceful nation'.

New Caledonia's economy is underpinned by French annual subsidies of some €1.3 billion euros, nickel deposits that are estimated to represent 25 percent of the world's total, and tourism.

It enjoys a large degree of autonomy but depends heavily on France for matters such as defence and education.

First discovered by the British explorer James Cook, the New Caledonia archipelago lies more than 16,700 kilometres from France. It became a French colony in 1853.

A 1998 deal provided for a referendum on independence to be held by the end of 2018.

Under the terms of that deal, in the event of a no vote two further referendums can be held before 2022.

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