Mitterrand's PR coup on New Caledonia

French President Franois Mitterrand was greeted in New Caledonia by 30,000 hostile demonstrators, announced no startling breakthroughs, and after only 12 hours on the island flew back home Sunday well-pleased. How does it add up? By mixing a readiness for dialogue with a firmness over the island's future, the Mitterrand visit neutralized his government's opponents, both in Paris and on the troubled island, where tension between Kanak natives and French settlers has reached near civil-war proportions.

In the capital, Noum'ea, the President met with leaders from both sides, while the mass of anti-independence demonstrators paraded outside, draped in French flags. But there was no violence, no episode reminiscent of Prime Minister Guy Mollet's 1955 visit to Algeria during which he was pelted with tomatoes.

Instead, the opposing leaders emerged from their meetings with Mr. Mitterrand with moderate statements. Dick Ukeiwe, president of the staunchly pro-French territorial government, said he was pleased by the attention the President paid to his arguments. Jean-Marie Tjibaou, leader of the rebel ``provisional government,'' called his discussion ``useful.''

On his return to Paris, Mitterrand moved quickly to counter lingering accusations by Paris conservatives and anti-independence European settlers that his government was preparing to abandon the island. Calling the National Assembly into special session to extend the state of emergency declared on Jan. 12, he announced a reinforcement of France's military presence on the island.

``France intends to maintain its role and strategic presence in this part of the world,'' the President said.

At the same time, Mitterrand continued to insist that the native Melanesians be granted at least limited independence. He said some of his recently announced proposals to offer independence ``in association'' with France could be modified, but he put his weight firmly on the side of a ``yes'' vote in July's planned referendum.

Such a vote is contingent on pro-independence Melanesians, who representing 43 percent of the island's population, convincing several thousand of the European settlers (37 percent of the population) and other Polynesian and Asian immigrants that cutting some ties with France is the best course to avoid prolonged bloodshed.

Mitterrand acknowledged that the two sides continue to hold positions that are not easily reconcilable. To many Melanesians, independence with continued French jurisdiction over such sensitive areas as the police and the currency represents insufficient freedom. To many Europeans, it means far too much.

But the high-risk Mitterrand visit to the island may help each side to compromise. Before, the focus of attention was on a police sharpshooter's bullet which 10 days ago killed Eloi Machoro, the most militant of the independence leaders.

Now, at least, despite the apparent sabotage Monday of the island's main nickel mine, the two sides are talking about the future. Both Mr. Ukeiwe and Mr. Tjibaou are traveling to France, where they are to meet once again with the President.

In France, even more than in New Caledonia, Mitter-rand has calmed tensions. Until his trip, the conservative opposition excoriated the President daily. Every notch of increasing violence in the South Pacific brought back tragic memories of Algeria -- and called Mitterrand's authority into question.

The visit silenced those attacks. Polls showed that some 60 percent of Frenchmen approved of Mitterrand's move. Half of those interrogated also criticized the conservatives for petty politicking over the affair.

As a result, the opposition leaders' criticisms of the trip were unusually subdued. Their main response, in fact, was to copy the President. Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, leader of the Gaullists, and former President Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing announced that they would soon make the 26-hour flight to New Caledonia.

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