New Caledonia: paradise turned battleground

Down on Noum'ea's beachfront, Club M'editerran'ee has some unusual guests. Gone are the tourists so vital to New Caledonia's economy. Relaxing in their place are some of the 6,000 troops and special riot police whom France has brought in to try to keep peace on what was once called ``the ultimate island paradise.''

This French territory has become the scene of bitter fighting recently. On one side is the native population, the Melanesians, who advocate independence from France. Most of the island's white settlers, however, want to retain their traditional ties to France, and are willing to fight for them.

One such settler is Henri Morini, who would fit well into any international adventure story. An ex-French Army soldier, he sits surrounded by burly guards in his luxurious hilltop retreat on the outskirts of Noum'ea, the island's capital.

Mr. Morini's knapsack is packed and his boat is ready in the bay below to speed him away. If he has to, he says, he will go to a secluded part of the island to organize a private army to fight against independence.

Although he wants the island to remain a French territory, he is bitterly opposed to the French government of President Franois Mitterrand, an administration he calls ``Marxist.'' He objects to Mr. Mitterrand's proposals for granting independence to the island's 150,000 people.

The Melanesians are generally in favor of the French plans.

Militancy has been growing on both sides, and in a few months New Caledonia has gone from an idyllic island, frequented by the international jet set, to the setting for a violent terrorist war.

The two sides have very different views on the cause of the present troubles. But both lay most of the blame on French government policies.

The white settlers say the French government has encouraged Melanesian violence by its liberal ideas about independence. They say the Melanesians are not ready for independence, and that if there is a break with France, there will be economic collapse followed by communism.

The Melanesians say the present troubles are the result of French colonial policies. They claim that French mining companies have exploited their lands for more than 100 years. They say the French government encouraged immigration into New Caledonia in the late 1960s and early '70s and, as a result, the Melanesians became a minority in their own land.

The Melanesians also point to economic imbalances. Noum'ea, with the help of large amounts of French aid, has become a town in which the mainly white population indulges in an easy beach and business life style. The rest of the territory, where the majority of Melanesians live, has been only sparely developed.

More than 20 people have been killed in clashes since last November.

Militant Melanesians operate mostly in the interior. They launch attacks on isolated white farms, often killing cattle, and sometimes the residents.

The mainly white anti-independence groups limit their activities to Noum'ea. Groups have openly defied curfew restrictions. They have taken to the streets to demonstrate against French proposals.

For the French government, the difficulties in New Caledonia are beginning to resemble a quagmire of violence.

The government's latest plans aim at splitting the territory into four regions, each with a large degree of autonomy. A referendum on independence would then be held by the end of 1987. Through such an arrangement it is hoped that the two sides could learn to work toward some degree of independence.

The government ultimately hopes to establish a form of independence in association with France. Paris would maintain control over defense and external affairs, and would guarantee the rights of those who wish to remain French citizens, while satisfying the fundamental demand of the Melanesians for recognition of sovereignty over their native land.

Most Melanesians support the plan, though for the more militant it does not promise independence soon enough.

But to anti-independence groups, it is all, as one member says, ``a monstrous idiocy.'' They are determined to fight the plan. They have successfully rallied opposition forces in France behind their cause, with the hope of pressuring Mitterrand to scrap his plans.

If that happens, there is little doubt the Melanesians would declare open war. On the other hand, there are many people like Henri Morini ready to take militant action to retain union with France.

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