Voters on the South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia were on course to reject breaking away from France after nearly 170 years of colonial rule in a referendum on Sunday, partial results showed.
With votes from 249 out of 304 polling stations tallied, the partial results showed the "no" camp ahead with 54.8% support and expanding its lead as results came in from the capital, Noumea, traditionally a bastion of pro-Paris loyalty.
If the "no" vote is confirmed, it would be the second failed attempt by pro-independence supporters to gain full sovereignty in the past two years.
A surprise "yes" vote would deprive Paris of a foothold in a region where China is expanding its influence and dent the pride of a country whose former empire once spanned sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean
Tensions have long run deep between pro-independence indigenous Kanaks and descendants of colonial settlers who remain loyal to Paris.
More than 180,000 long-term residents of New Caledonia are registered to vote "yes" or "no" on the question: "Do you want New Caledonia to gain its full sovereignty and become independent?"
Sunday's referendum was the second of up to three permitted under the terms of the 1998 Noumea Accord, an agreement enshrined in France's constitution and which set out a 20-year path towards decolonisation.
Turnout was high - the partial results showed 86% of eligible voters had cast a ballot - after a stronger-than-expected independence vote in the 2018 referendum.
New Caledonia, an island chain some 1,200 km (750 miles) east of Australia and 20,000 km (12,500 miles) from Paris, enjoys a large degree of autonomy but depends heavily on France for matters such as defence and education.
Its economy is underpinned by annual French subsidies of some 1.3 billion euros ($1.5 billion) and nickel deposits that are estimated to represent 25% of the world’s total, and tourism.
The territory has, however, largely cut itself off from the outside world to shield itself from the coronavirus. It has registered only 27 cases of COVID-19.
If the "no vote" wins, a third referendum can be held within two years if a third of the local assembly votes in favour.