France faces rough sailing in efforts to decolonize New Caledonia

Decolonizing the South Pacific territory of New Caledonia is proving to be a thornier job than France had expected. Pro-independence groups have shifted sharply to a more militant stance, and are threatening to declare independence from France.

Roughly 45 percent of New Caledonia's 140,000 people are indigenous Melanesians, known as Kanaks. Most Kanaks want the French out. French immigration policies turned the indigenous people into a minority in their own land, they say. They want electoral reform to ensure that they control future governments.

Most of the rest of the population are European settlers from France and Polynesians from elsewhere in the Pacific (the majority of whom ally themselves with the larger white settler community). Most whites want French rule to stay.

The French are in a bind: If they indicate a leaning toward the pro-independence forces, there are rumblings from the more right-wing settlers - and a violent white backlash. If they appear to drag their feet, the Kanaks suggest an independence war is a distinct possibility.

France's Socialist government, fearing abrupt action would spark violence and embroil the country in an expensive peacekeeping operation or worse, took the cautious route. In July, the French National Assembly voted that New Caledonia would hold new Territorial Assembly elections by the end of this year, followed by internal self-government and, in 1989, a referendum on independence.

The Paris decision satisfied few. The non-Kanak settlers called it a Socialist sellout to the blacks. The Kanaks felt betrayed by the French Socialists who, when they were in opposition, had indicated strong support for decolonization. Consequently, there has been more radical rhetoric from pro-independence groups and growing awareness on both sides that the sporadic and isolated riots or small-scale violence of recent years could escalate into a far uglier situation.

Now the Independence Front, a coalition of pro-independence parties, has regrouped under a new name: the National Kanak Socialist Liberation Front, known by the initials of its French name as FLNKS. Its aim is a new nation to be called Kanaki. FLNKS declared it will boycott French institutions, draft a new constitution, and adopt a flag. It plans to choose a 37-member parliament in November that would elect a provisional government on Nov. 24.

Wanting immediate independence, FLNKS pledges to declare a ''provisional independence government'' on Dec. 1 and suggests that moves toward ''clandestinity'' may become necessary.

''We've called on other races to join us in the independence movement but we can see there's been almost no one,'' says Edmond Nekiriai, a pro-independence leader.

The neighboring Melanesian nations of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu support the independence campaign. Fiji, however, has been less outspoken on this issue.

Analysts in Noumea say France has several options:

* It can postpone territorial elections and negotiate with FLNKS to speed up the independence timetable, risking settler wrath.

* It can ignore FLNKS and press on with present policies, since, with a firm French grip on law and order, an independence declaration would have little practical impact.

* Or it can crack down hard, arresting leaders and trying to break the organization - a choice seen as highly unlikely in Noumea as it will merely drive the movement toward the clandestineness it already perceives it may need to adopt.

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