Mitterrand flies into a political storm in Pacific

By flying halfway around the globe Thursday evening to New Caledonia, French President Franois Mitterrand hopes to give his beleaguered administration a dramatic boost. Mr. Mitterrand has used the tactic before, to good effect. After the car-bomb attack in October 1983 against French troops in Beirut, he immediately went to inspect rescue operations. And when Basque terrorists threatened his life last October, he visited the French Basque town of St. Jean-de-Luz.

But the trip to the South Pacific island carries much higher risks. In the other cases, the danger was physical: This time, it is political as well.

President Mitterrand's proposal to grant independence ``in association'' with France has not eased tensions on the island. On the contrary, following the murders last week of a young French settler and two separatist leaders, France was forced to declare a state of emergency.

Neither the native Melanesian separatists nor the French settlers wanting to remain linked with Paris trust Mitterrand. Each group represents about 40 percent of the island's 145,000 people, with the rest being made up of Southeast Asian and Polynesian immigrants.

The settlers accuse his government of not protecting their homes. The separatists criticize his independence offer as too timid and charge his government with the ``murder'' of their leader, Eloi Machoro, who was killed by a member of France's crack antiterrorist squad.

Mitterrand does not seem to have any new ideas for bringing the two sides together. In the television interview in which he announced his trip, he reaffirmed his support for his government's plan to grant New Caledonia independence while retaining control of its defense, its currency, its broadcasting, and its police.

``The project preserves everyone's fundamental interests,'' he said. If its ``equilibrium is broken, then a situation leading to greater confrontation can only develop.'' With those words, Mitterrand urged a ``yes'' vote in July's referendum on the plan.

In many ways, this call represents the first salvo of an electoral battle at home as well as in New Caledonia. The governing Socialists face legislative elections in 1986, and largely because of unpopular austerity policies resulting in rising unemployment, the campaign promises to be an uphill battle. A poll published last week showed the opposition would win 58 percent of the vote if elections were held now.

New Caledonia adds another large obstacle. Already, the troubles there have hurt the government's authority. As they grow, comparisons are made with the devastating Algerian war, which split France and brought the end of the Fourth Republic.

The newspaper Le Monde carried a report from Algeria this week quoting Algerian newspapers as saying: ``History is repeating itself. The same words. The same deeds. . . .''

Is Mitterrand flying directly into the same kind of political storm by going to New Caledonia? Only his reception Saturday morning will give the answer, but he must remember what happened to Socialist Prime Minister Guy Mollet when he visited Algiers in 1955. Tomatoes were thrown at him, and his government fell soon afterward. -- 30 -- {et

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