The South Pacific island territory of New Caledonia voted to remain an administrative part of France after a national referendum held on November 4 saw 56.4% of the voters who participated in the referendum decide to maintain ties with Paris, which has ruled New Caledonia since the mid-19th century.

French President Emmanuel Macron described the vote as “a watershed” in the history of the French Republic and promised the Islanders a full dialogue on the archipelago’s future within France.

“I’m asking everyone to turn toward the future to build tomorrow’s New Caledonia,” Macron said, speaking from the presidential Elysee Palace in Paris. “The spirit of dialogue is the sole winner.”

The referendum attracted a record-high turnout of 80.6% and was seen as a milestone in New Caledonia’s three decades of decolonisation after nearly two centuries of oppressive rule over the archipelago, which is located east Australia, by white, French colonialists over the native population.

Roughly 40% of New Caledonia’s 269,000 residents are indigenous Melanesians and 27% are decedents of French colonists. The tension between the two ethnic groups has often triggered violent outbursts since France first annexed the islands in 1853.

The French government first used New Caledonia as one of its many notorious Pacific island penal colonies until the nickel-rich archipelago became one of post-World War II France’s 13 overseas territories, along with the likes of Tahiti and Martinique, in 1946.

New Caledonia now has increased autonomy under the French constitution and is legally defined as self-governing, except for defence, foreign affairs, and higher education.

Those who wished to remain a part of France said they wanted to retain their French and EU citizenship as well as the substantial social benefits that come with being French passport holders. The indigenous population had advocated for a clean break with Paris to end what they deemed was the de facto socioeconomic dominance of the islands by former French colonists.

The islands receive about €1.3 billion in French state subsidies every year, and many had feared the economy would suffer if ties were severed.

New Caledonia boasts a quarter of the world’s known supply of nickel, an essential component for the manufacturing of stainless steel, electronics, and coins. Security analysts had warned that if New Caledonia were to secede from France, that China would move in to fill the strategic vacuum, much in the same way that it has in neighbouring Vanuatu.