When the French government decided last week to offer a referendum on independence to its South Pacific territory New Caledonia, it knew the task of reconciling the island's European settlers and native Melanesians would be difficult. Just how difficult became clear during the past four days. A sudden upsurge of violence, leaving 26 police injured, and three dead, forced the government's special envoy Edgard Pisani to declare a state of emergency on the island.
The South Seas emergency reached back to Paris -- and even Washington. United States Ambassador Evan Galbraith expressed fears that the island might become ``another Grenada.''
Following reports that Melanesian leaders had received training in Libya, Mr. Galbraith called for the maintenance of ``the status quo with the French presence.''
Afterward, the ambassador tried to minimize the remarks, saying he was not opposed to Mr. Pisani's plan of independence ``in association'' with France.
But the American preference for a strong French presence in the sensitive South Pacific remains clear. In a stopover here to brief French officials on the Geneva arms talks, National Security adviser Robert McFarlane noted that France traditionally has played ``a very positive role in Pacific affairs.''
The violence underscored the domestic dispute surrounding New Caledonia. Led by Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, the conservative opposition already has rejected the Socialist government's proposal of independence ``in association'' with France. A nasty political battle looms before July's planned referendum, with the Socialists under attack for not protecting the rights of Frenchmen.
In New Caledonia, that political battle now seems more likely to resemble a civil war than a calm, rational debate. Pisani's plan tries to satisfy the competing Melanesian and European claims. While granting the natives' independence, it placed conditions on the freedom meant to reassure the Europeans -- namely continued French control over the new state's defense, its money, its broadcasting, and even its police.
But the recent events show that neither of the two communities seem ready to compromise. As soon as news was broadcast Friday that 17-year-old Yves Taul had been killed, most probably by Melanesian militants, more than a thousand Europeans in the capital of Noum'ea went on a rampage, destroying buildings and attacking police.
Relative calm reportedly returned Sunday to the island following the imposition of a state of emergency. Judging by the week's violence, though, that order will be difficult to translate into peace.