French President Emmanuel Macron urged “compatriots” in New Caledonia to forge a common future on Tuesday during a landmark visit, more than a year after the overseas territory’s disputed vote to remain part of France.

Macron faces a significant challenge charting an acceptable path for both French loyalists and the pro-independence, indigenous Kanaks who widely boycotted the December 2021 referendum and rejected its result.

“It is not a full stop, it is a semi-colon”, Macron said after a string of three independence referendums over the past five years, all of which rejected independence from France.

He held out the prospect of a “slow, humble, demanding” process to build a “shared history” for New Caledonia through a process of “truth and reconciliation”.

In separate remarks to French television, the president stressed that the series of referendums was “unprecedented”

“The choice that was expressed was to stay in France and the Republic,” he stressed, on his first visit to New Caledonia in five years.

“I am with our compatriots during these days to define together the basis for this new path, of this new project for the future of New Caledonia — respectful of its identity, of its history but in the light of the choice that has been made.”

Pro-independence campaigners had boycotted the third independence referendum arguing a fair campaign was impossible during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The vote outcome has fed ethnic tensions, with the poorer indigenous Kanak community generally favouring independence over the wealthier white community.

Macron, who attended a French military display in the capital Noumea, is also seeking to reassert his country’s importance in the Pacific region, where China and the United States are vying for influence but where France has territories such as New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

He has had to reassemble a French strategy in the region since Australia in 2021 tore up a deal for France to provide build a fleet of diesel-powered submarines, opting instead for US and British-built nuclear-powered vessels.

France has nearly 1.5 million citizens in the Asia-Pacific through its various territories, as well as several thousand troops including 1,600 in New Caledonia, Macron said, describing a region in “tension” as China and the United States expand their footprints.

After his first stop in New Caledonia, Macron is to make the first visits by a sitting French president to Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, where he is expected to lay out a “French alternative” for the region.