Voters were asked "Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?" to which just over half said "No." There was a record high turnout in the Pacific archipelago east of Australia.
Voters on the Pacific islands of New Caledonia voted in favor of remaining part of France on Sunday, according to official results of an independence referendum.
The local electoral authority said the "No" camp against independence had 56.4 percent of the vote compared to 43.6 percent favoring independence.
French President Emmanuel Macron said he took pride in the country's decision to remain French.
"I also want to express my pride as the head of state that the majority of Caledonians have chosen France. It's a sign of confidence in the French Republic, in its future and its values," he said in an address to the nation.
The referendum, which asked the 174,000 registered voters, "Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?" was the result of a process that started three decades ago to devolve powers to local authorities.
The vote was viewed as a litmus test of sentiment in France's far-flung overseas territories, with both French Guiana in South America and the Indian Ocean archipelago of Mayotte having experienced protests last year over perceived neglect by Paris.
France claimed New Caledonia for its empire in 1853.
According to government officials, voter turnout was around 80 percent — more than 15 percent higher than the turnout for 2014 provincial elections. The office for the French High Commissioner said the long queues in parts of the capital, Noumea, meant some polling stations had to stay open later than planned.
An activist holds the pro-independence flag during a meeting of the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front in Noumea
New Caledonia has a population of some 270,000 people, including native Kanaks, who make up around 40 percent, and people of European descent, a minority of 27 percent. Kanaks tend to overwhelmingly support independence.
Some feared that Sunday's vote could lead to a resurgence of simmering ethnic tensions that resulted in deadly clashes in the 1980s in which some 70 people died. The violence was what led to the 1998 Noumea Accord, which paved the way for the territory's increasing autonomy and aimed to redress the economic imbalances that were behind the unrest.
Many of those opposed to independence say that the country is economically reliant on the €1.3 billion ($1.5 billion) that the French state contributes every year. Others have voiced concern that an independent New Caledonia might be seized upon by China as an opportunity to further consolidate its influence in the Pacific, citing as an example Beijing's major investments in Vanuatu, which split from France in 1980.
New Caledonia already has control over many areas of government. However, defense, foreign affairs, justice and higher education are still under French administration.
The Noumea Accord allows two more referendums on independence to be held by 2022.
cw,shs, tj/jlw (AFP, AP)