They may be mere specks in the vastness of the Pacific, but the islands of New Caledonia are presenting France with prickly colonial problem. For the 140,000 people of the normally tranquil French colony are bitterly divided over whether or not to press for independence.
In the past few weeks the dispute has reached the point where talk of violence and intimidation is spreading. The assassination of a pro-independence white politician last month gave an especially sharp twist to the downward spiral.
Most members of the islands' largest group -- the 55,000 indigenous Melanesians, or "Kanaks" -- feel they should be allowed to control the local government and lead New Caledonia to independence.
But most members of the second-largest group -- the 55,000 French whites -- want the colonial status quo preserved. (The assassinated politician, Pierre Declercq, was one of a minority of whites who have identified with the Kanak pro-independence cause).
The whites currently enjoy a large measure of support from the islands' minorities such as the 15,000 immigrant Polynesians. The anti-independence parties therefore form the majority in the Territorial Assembly -- a majority status that the Kanak want France to reverse by changing the electoral process in their favor. France has carefully avoided committing itself to either side. There are no firm indications that Paris is changing its colonial policies, which have not been geared toward offering its remaining possessions independence.
Kanak hopes that President Mitterrand's new Socialist administration in France would produce a shift toward independence have so far proved empty. But most observes say that France cannot put off a decision one way or the other much longer."
New Caledonia's pro-independence forces have been spurred both by growing political sophistication among young Kanak and by the growing assertivesness of neighboring independent nations such as PApua, New Guinea, fiji, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides).
These nations support the Kanaks. In fact, France initially resisted granting independence to Vanuatu because Paris officials believed an independent Vanuatu would encourage New Caledonians to press for independence.
Some key New Caledonian officials belieive Paris, too, is anxious to award their islands independence but dawdless because it is wary of a white backlash. They also suggest France might lure settlers who do not want to live in an independent New Caledonia back to France with financial incentives. (They see and added adavantage in the consequent population shift in favor of the Kanaks.)