New Caledonia tense as colonists try to resist independence drive

French colonial officials in the nickel-rich Pacific possession of New Caledonia are concerned about threatened political unrest in the coming year as campaigns for and against independence gather momentum.

French colonists are using terms like "UDI" (Unilateral Declaration of Independence), Rhodesia-style, to describe what they may do if France "sells out" to pro-independence groups. The more extreme among them speak of prolonged Algeria-type violence.

The failure of white colonists' resistance to majority rule in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and Algeria does not discourage the aggressive talk in the sidewalk cafes of Noumea, the capital.

Settler's ire was aroused last year when France and Britain granted independence to Vanuatu (called the New Hebrides while under colonial administration), which had been jointly ruled by the two European nations.

Settlers believed France was indicating a readiness to leave the Pacific. Vanuatu's independence, they argued, would only encourage groups supporting independence for the remaining French colonies.

When secessionists tried to pull one island out of the new nation of Vanuatu, they were strongly backed by groups of French settlers in New Caledonia who did not want to see a peaceful transition to independence in the neighboring territory. The rebellion failed.

New Caledonia, east of Australia, ishome to 60,000 Melanesians, 50,000 French settlers, 17,000 Polynesian immigrants from other South Pacific islands, and 11, 000 Vietnamese and Indonesian descendants of laborers imported by the French.

Indigenous Melanesians, known as Kanaks, are stepping up their calls for independence, having watched Melanesians attain nationhood in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. Highly critical of the French colonial administation, they say little effort has been made to get Melanesians into top jobs.

Polynesians and Asians have generally backed the settlers. But recently younger Polynesians have begun to back the Melanesians, viewing them as Pacific brothers.

Kanaks are promising to step up pro-independence agitation this year. Representatives of their Front Independantiste plan visits to Pacific, Asian, African, and Caribbean nations during 1981 to put their case to third- world governments.

Whispers have become more common in Noumea of the existence of secret white groups prepared to resort to terrorism if authorities move toward independence.

The Front Independantiste believes the Melanesian majority should control the government of an independent New Caledonia. White and some other minorities are split -- right-wing parties wanting the colony to be declared an integral part of France and centrist parties wanting the present situation or a modification.

Superficially, race relations are easygoing. Some liberal settle rs support independence. But they are a minority.

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