French plan for gradual self-rule stirs unrest in South Pacific colony

A French postponement of a decision on whether to grant independence to New Caledonia could spark violence in the South Pacific territory, regional analysts contend.

During a late November visit, French Minister for Overseas Territories Georges Lemoine presented a plan for increasing self-rule and for holding a referendum on self-determination in 1989.

A local political group, the Independence Front, has called for independence in 1985 or 1986. It charges France with postponing change by its 1989 plan.

New Caledonia, a major nickel producer and a tourism center - mostly for Australians and Japanese - has a population of about 130,000. The indigenous people are Melanesians, and the majority of them want independence. They are backed by the independent Melanesian nations of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. But, though the largest single bloc, they are outnumbered by white French settlers and Polynesian immigrants, who want to retain dependence on France.

France is caught in a bind: If it yields to the Melanesians, a white backlash (the Polynesians mostly stay clear of direct involvement) could result. Some analysts even forecast a white Rhodesia-style unilateral declaration of independence to perpetuate settler domination with all the benefits of a low-tax life in the sun.

But, if France yields to settler opinion, it risks making the Melanesian mood more militant - and there are indications that young radicals may turn to violence. Most whites, and their Polynesian allies, worry about a future under Melanesian rule much as white settlers have done in African colonial territories before independence.

The Melanesians reply they do not plan to expel the whites or the Polynesians. But they say they, as the indigenous inhabitants, should not be robbed of control of the government because of French immigration policies.

The lineup is not exclusively racial: Some whites back the Independence Front vocally and some blacks believe they will be better off under the French umbrella.

French officials say yielding to either side would prompt violence and bring the need for an expensive peacekeeping exercise. They want to avoid the creation of a ''mini-Algeria.'' But their critics say that, by stalling for six more years, they are allowing uncertainty to continue and political bitterness to worsen.

France has cool relations with independent Melanesian nations both because of its colonial policies and because of nuclear tests in the Pacific. In Polynesian Tahiti, France also faces independence agitation. Only in underdeveloped Wallis and Futuna, France's third Pacific territory, is French rule largely unopposed.

Among the region's industrialized nations, Australia backs independence for New Caledonia. French critics charge this is so Australia can further expand its considerable economic influence in the islands.

New Zealand, on the other hand, is sympathetic to continued French administration, even though it is a vocal critic of French nuclear policy in the Pacific.

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