Voters turned out in exceptional numbers in a referendum to decide whether the French South Pacific territory of New Caledonia should break free from the European country that claimed it in the mid-19th century.
First results have begun to trickle in, with a village of about 600 people the first to declare, voting overwhelmingly against a split from France.
New Caledonia’s High Commissioner tweeted that Farino on the territory’s main island voted by a margin of 9 to 1 against independence, and that nearly 95 percent of the village’s registered voters cast ballots.
Fuller results from far more heavily populated areas are expected later Sunday.
The territory’s High Commissioner estimated that close to three-quarters of registered voters had cast ballots an hour before polls closed.
The independence vote marked a milestone for the archipelago that lies east of Australia and has sun-kissed lagoons as well as a mining industry for nickel, a metal used in electronics manufacturing.
More than 174,000 registered voters were invited to answer the question: “Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?”
Observers expect a majority to favor remaining a part of France, based on opinion polls and previous election results.
Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (10 p.m. Saturday in mainland France; 9 p.m. GMT) and close 10 hours later. Results are expected later Sunday.
Cluster of Pacific islands
New Caledonia, a cluster of islands, is home to about 270,000 people. They include the native Kanaks, who represent about 40 percent of the population, people of European descent (about 27 percent) and others from Asian countries and Pacific islands.
It relies on France for defense, law enforcement, foreign affairs, justice and education, yet has a large degree of autonomy. New Caledonia receives about 1.3 billion euros ($1.5 billion) in French state subsidies every year, and many fear the economy would suffer if ties are severed.
The referendum is the result of a process that started 30 years ago to end years of violence between supporters and opponents of separating from France.
The violence, which overall claimed more than 70 lives, prompted a 1988 deal between rival loyalist and pro-independence factions. Another agreement a decade later included plans for an independence referendum.
Most Kanaks have tended to back independence, while most descendants of European settlers have favored keeping the French connection.
To ensure security during the vote, additional police were sent to New Caledonia. Authorities also banned the carrying of firearms and alcohol sales immediately before and during the vote.
If voters say no to independence Sunday, the 1998 agreement allows two more self-determination referendums to be held by 2022.