France's quagmire in Pacific

At the very moment Francois Mitterrand faces growing difficulties in Chad, violence and a political deadlock are turning the far-off Pacific island territory of New Caledonia into another overseas quagmire for the French President.

New Caledonia is a remnant of France's colonial past. It lies 750 miles east of Australia and some 12,000 miles from Paris - and the Nov. 18 elections for a new territorial assembly show that the 145,000 islanders are dangerously divided over what type of status they want with France.

Most of the Kanaks, the original Melanesian inhabitants, want immediate independence. But they are only 43 percent of the island's population. The rest of the islanders, 34 percent French settlers and 17 percent other Polynesians and Asians, want to remain part of France.

President Mitterrand hoped to reconcile the opposing groups by giving the territory greater autonomy through its new assembly. The assembly was to organize a referendum on independence in 1989.

But the plan has only aggravated the tension and created an angry debate back in France. The main Kanak political parties boycotted the vote. In many places, violence obstructed the polling.

The result was a low turnout and a sweeping victory for the opponents of independence, who also oppose Mitterrand's socialism. The Rassemble-ment pour la Caledonie dans la Republique (RPCR), a Gaullist group, won 71 percent of the vote and 34 of the 42 assembly seats. Over the weekend, the RPCR formed a government, vowing to obstruct any attempt at independence.

In response, the separatists formed their own ''provisionary government,'' and stepped up violence. They set up roadblocks, occupied police stations, and even kidnaped a French official on the neighboring island of Lifou.

Mitterrand further muddled the situation. His minister for overseas territories, Georges Lemoine, called for order and announced ''an acceleration of the process of self-determination which will permit New Caledonia to make a choice, including that of independence.'' Mr. Lemoine added that he was ready to negotiate with the separatists, and to prove his goodwill, sent a high-ranking aide to the island to seek a compromise.

The actions pleased no one. The Kanaks say they don't trust Lemoine. The French Socialists have not kept campaign promises for early independence, they say, so the only solution is to keep fighting. Lemoine's openness to compromise infuriated the New Caledonian government - and France's conservative opposition. Five former prime ministers, all Gaullists, called on Mitterrand to restore order on the island.

''Mr. President,'' wrote Michel Debre, Maurice Couve de Murville, Jacques Chaban-Delmas, Pierre Messmer, and Jacques Chirac, ''do not engage in a process that will overturn the will of the majority of New Caledonia.''

The attacks scored. As with the Chad affair, where Libyan troops have not withdrawn as promised, Mitterrand has been made to look weak. Adding to the embarrassment was the revelation that 17 of the Kanak militants were trained in Libya.

With the French economy sagging, foreign policy was one area where Mitterrand was admired. Now he faces the choice of war or humiliation in Chad, and of a nasty struggle with no end in sight in the Pacific.

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