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Macron hails New Caledonia vote to 'remain French'

Initial results suggest French archipelago has opted against independence, with nearly 60 percent of votes counted.

New Caledonia vote

The French archipelago of New Caledonia in the South Pacific appears set to remain part of France, according to partial results of an independence referendum.

Local TV network NC La 1ere reported that nearly 57 percent of voters had rejected secession in Sunday's poll, with nearly two-thirds of the ballots counted. Turnout stood at almost 80 percent, it said.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the "majority" of New Caledonians had declared they wanted the territory to "remain French".

"Voters were allowed to make a sovereign choice, with full knowledge of the facts and the relationship between New Caledonia and France," Macron said in a televised statement from the Elysee Palace in the French capital, Paris, on Sunday.

"I am proud we have finally passed this historic step together," he added.

The final result is set to be declared later on Sunday evening.

More than 174,000 voters registered to take part in the ballot.

Decades-long process

New Caledonia, a cluster of islands home to about 270,000 people, is situated nearly 17,000km southeast of France.

The territory's indigenous Kanak people make up about 40 percent of its population, with those of European descent constituting about 27 percent.

France claimed the islands in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III - Napoleon's nephew and heir - and used them to hold prisoners.

It later became an overseas territory, after World War II, with French citizenship granted to all Kanaks in 1957.

Under French colonial rule, the Kanaks faced strict segregation policies and suffered discrimination, and violent clashes between officials and the territory's indigenous people took place throughout the 1980s.

A peace deal struck in 1988 ended the unrest and paved the way for a future agreement, signed in 1998, on holding a referendum on independence by the end of 2018.

Sunday's vote was the first on self-determination to be held in a French territory since Djibouti in the Horn of Africa opted for independence during a poll in 1977.

A result in favour of independence would have seen New Caledonia become the world's newest state, overtaking South Sudan, which declared independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011.

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