Paris — New Caledonia may be 23 hours away by air from the French capital, but don't tell Prime Minister Jacques Chirac that the far-off land is a colony. To Mr. Chirac and his conservative supporters, the South Pacific island is part of the French motherland and should stay that way. On Sept. 13, a referendum on independence will be held in New Caledonia. In addition to heating up simmering tensions between the French settlers and the native Melanesians, the referendum has sparked a conflict between Chirac and Socialist President Fran,cois Mitterrand and strained French relations with Australia and New Zealand.
Little suspense surrounds the outcome. French settlers will vote overwhelmingly to keep New Caledonia a part of France. Native Melanesians, who constitute about 43 percent of the population, have decided to boycott the vote - which they would lose in any case.
Instead of fighting at the ballot box, the Melanesians have taken their struggle to the streets in defiance of a ban on demonstrations. The separatist Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front's (FLNK) goal is to illustrate to the French and the world at large that French rule is repressive.
Late last month, 300 Kanaks occupied a main square in the middle of the capital Noumea. French riot police beat the peaceful Melanesians - in front of an Australian television crew.
The beating enraged Mr. Mitterrand. He rebuked Chirac, asking, ``How can we not be sensitive to the images of brutality that were aired and even more by the reality they express?''
Serious issues lay behind the verbal fireworks. When Mr. Mitterrand's Socialists were in power, they decided French rule in the Pacific was an anachronism. They proposed giving the Melanesians charge of most domestic matters while France retained control of defense, foreign affairs, police, and the valuable nickle deposits. The Socialists argued that such a solution would guard France's economic and political interests in the region.
Both Australia and New Zealand oppose French nuclear tests on some barren islands in the South Pacific and the French presence on New Caledonia. After the recent police beating, New Zealand's Prime Minister David Lange called for the independence referendum to be abandoned and Australia threatened to cancel a lucrative order for largely French-built Airbus jetliners.
But Chirac sees the situation differently. When he came to power in 1986, he moved to reassure his right-wing allies that he would not abandon loyal French settlers. He traveled to Noumea and told cheering settlers, ``This land is yours.''
Chirac says the Melanesians are dangerous socialists and pawns manipulated by evil foreign forces. His aides charge that the FLNK has received Libyan funding. The Melanesians say they long ago stopped accepting support from Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Australia and New Zealand also stand accused of what Chirac described as ``shocking hypocrisy.'' In his view, both countries are ``conducting overtly or slyly a political destabilization'' in New Caledonia designed to oust France from a position of influence in the region.
Such statements are politically sensitive here. French from across the political spectrum support France's nuclear strike force and continued atomic testing in the South Pacific. Under the previous Socialist government, French secret services went so far as to blow up the Rainbow Warrior, a boat docked in New Zealand on its way to protest French nuclear tests. Acts like that help explain why Mitterrand and other French leaders sympathetic to the Melanesian cause cannot bring themselves to openly air what some analysts see as the simplest and most obvious solution to the New Caledonia conflict - independence.