A way out for New Caledonia? Violence is growing in New Caledonia as native islanders seek independence and the territory's European settlers and French patrons resist. Politician Lionel Cherrier offers a compromise.

In the two hours after he appeared on a local television news program, Lionel Cherrier received seven threats against his life and home. Such is the tolerance for moderation in New Caledonia. Centrist parties have disappeared from the political landscape. If you're not pro-independence, then you're a resolute French loyalist. In recent years, both sides in this French South Pacific territory have abandoned dialogue for violence.

Mr. Cherrier - a political veteran here - is one of the last public voices for compromise, quietly speaking from a chasm between hardliners of the left and right.

``We need to build a bridge, to create a society that recognizes all ethnic cultures in New Caledonia,'' Cherrier said in a Monitor interview.

Cherrier's bridge is a proposal which would essentially give native Melanesians and long-time European residents control of all the islands of New Caledonia. But, the most populous, most industrialized region around Noum'ea, would be jointly governed by France and the Melanesian nation.

Under this proposal, France would not possess this region. Rather, it would rent it from New Caledonians for $300 million annually, which is 75 percent of the sum France now spends to fund the territory.

``The price of the rental will cover the budget for running the rest of the [largely undeveloped] country,'' says Cherrier. ``France would provide defense. The Kanaks [native islanders] would be the landlords of all of New Caledonia, France would rent the Noum'ea region.''

This arrangement, he says, would be similar to the joint governing arrangement France and Great Britain shared in the colony of New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) before it became independent. It would be a contractual agreement that could be canceled or renewed every 25 or 50 years, he vaguely suggests.

The proposal could go a long way toward satisfying the Melanesian's (43 percent of the population) desire for independence. It could soothe France's strategic concerns over independence by preserving a French military presence in the region. And, since France's financial commitment remains, it would address the concern (widely voiced by anti-independence groups) that New Caledonia would slide into an economic hole if it gained independence.

Copies of the proposal, first floated last November, have been sent to all members of the French Assembly. While Prime Minister Jacques Chirac has shown no interest, Cherrier says, President Fran,cois Mitterrand's aides have responded positively.

There are large obstacles to the proposal at the local level. Before serious dialogue could begin, the 23 hostages, French gendarmes, being held by Kanak separatists would have to be released, and hostilities rampant elsewhere in New Caledonia would have to abate.

In the current crisis atmosphere, major parties on both sides of the fence may refuse it. In fact, the controlling conservative RPCR (Assembly for New Caledonia within the French Republic) Party - in complete control since pro-independence parties boycotted the April 24 elections - has already flatly rejected the proposal.

Cherrier shrugs when this is pointed out. France must forge ahead with a solution, he says, despite resistance from the right.

Meanwhile, the pro-independence coalition party, FLNK (Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front) publicly rejects proposals that involve anything less than full independence. But this may not be as absolute a position as the rhetoric would indicate.

Leopold Joredie, a vocal hardline FLNK leader, suggested an almost identical proposal in a Monitor interview in mid-April. The difference in the two proposals was a shorter, six- to 10-year French leasing arrangement.

In 1985, a proposal similar to Cherrier's - without the joint-governance aspect - was floated. But it sank quickly in the face of increasing violence and the ascendancy of Chirac to prime minister in early 1986. This time around, if Mitterrand emerges victorious from the May 8 French presidential elections, Cherrier predicts the concept will survive.

Diplomatic and political analysts say the situation here is too volatile, too polarized for a quick and easy solution. Cherrier is a moderate, and that means he's a minor player on the New Caledonia political scene. They acknowledge his experience - nine years as a senator in the French National Assembly - but note he's not now an elected official. And he has no political party behind him.

Still, there could be more support for this kind of proposal than political leaders of the left or right admit. Privately, many middle-class New Caledonians interviewed - even conservatives - say ultimately a solution must involve some recognition of native Melanesians' desire for independence.

Sydney University professor John Connell, an author and expert on New Caledonia, doesn't hold out much hope for Cherrier's proposal at the moment.

But he says, ``Cherrier is right in what he's doing. People have got to sit down and talk about a compromise solution.''

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