Victoria, Seychelles — The Seychelles Islands - mere mossy specks in the clear, shimmering waters of the Indian Ocean - have long been the ideal escape from harsh winters in Europe.
But this dreamy cluster of 100-plus islands, population 60,000, is amazingly vulnerable to coups, especially coups launched from outside the country.
The most recent coup attempt, led by notorious Irish-born mercenary ''Mad Mike'' Hoare a month before Christmas, failed when a Seychelles customs inspector discovered a gun barrel protruding from a suitcase. The nation's police forced the invaders to retreat on a hijacked airliner following a gun battle.
Some of these ''dogs of war'' said they were trying to restore former President James R. M. Mancham to power. But it's clear most of the islanders don't want him.
Socialist President France Albert Rene, who deposed Mancham in 1977, has instituted a minimum wage, old age pensions, unem-ployment benefits, free education and health care, and a plan to enable even the poorest Seychellois to own his own house.
From taxi drivers to insurance agents, this correspondent has heard little but praise for President Rene's government.
A taxi driver points to new houses nestling at the foot of the palm-fringed mountain. ''See over there,'' he exhorts. ''These people used to have little shacks as a roof over their head. Now, under the new government, they get loans for a decent house.
''No,'' he says, frowning, ''we don't want Mancham back.''
Several businessmen here insist that if only the Socialists had waited a little longer, they would have won power at the polls without having to seize power.
As a president, Mancham was better known for his luxurious life style and womanizing than his governing. The landowning elite were his supporters. If the attempted coup of the 44 white mercenaries, all based in South Africa, had succeeded, Mancham (now living exile in London) would have been restored as a figurehead president in a pro-South African government.
But given the lack of popular support for Mancham, and the recent creation of the Seychelles defense forces, trained by Tanzanian military advisers, the odds were against the plot succeeding. As the Seychellois people have told this reporter again and again, ''Things have changed a lot in the last four years; there is no going back.''
President Rene's Socialist government has commanded a great deal more local and international respect than his predecessor's. His style of socialism is as much a mixed bag as the ethnic diversity of his people. The Seychelles have one of the world's most easy-going, multiracial societies. The people are every shade of black, white, and brown after long intermarriage between European colonizers and the former black slave population.
This is a land of French food, and native Creole cooking, calypso music, and French love songs. Other major influences are Caribbean reggae music, the Roman Catholic Church, and the British legal system.
In the words of Planning Minister Maxime Ferrari, who holds a degree in medicine from Cork University, Ireland, ''South Africa could learn a lot from our multiracial society.''
President Rene's style of socialism reflects this cultural diversity. Since 1977 the Seychelles blended antiimperialistic foreign policy with economic pragmatism at home. They became members of the Organization of African Unity, broke away from the pro-West camp, and stopped all flights from South African Airways landing here in the Seychelles.
They do not allow the Soviets to have a military base here. The Seychelles has vociferously demanded that the American base in Diego Garcia be eradicated.
However, the government has extended the American lease on their satellite tracking station here, and one American diplomat says bilateral relations with the government are excellent. ''This is one of the least corrupt administrations in the third world,'' he added.
For a country that is largely dependent for foreign exchange earnings on the tourist trade - 90 percent of which is in the hands of the large private sector - the government has managed to balance its budget surprisingly well.
And earlier this year the President's principal economic adviser, Guy Morel, a former economics professor in Australia, was instrumental in a 15 percent revaluation of the Seychelles rupee in order to reduce the cost of imports. Another unusual feature is the nation's lack of exchange control. This is one socialist government with no black market problems.